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The Homeless Voice Doesn't Act Like Most Homeless Shelters -- Just the Way Sean Cononie Wants It

Cononie's vans drop newspaper hawkers off at intersections in Dade and Broward counties each morning. Holidays are the best for donations.
Michael McElroy

Sean Cononie is accustomed to interruptions — ringing phones, questions from staff, resident emergencies — but this wrench in the day was different. In August, as he worked at his paper- and cigarette-ash-littered desk, settled in his cushioned leather chair with its dust-coated plastic base, the lights flickered off and on in short spurts. The outside air felt hot and thick, and its stifling suffocation would soon creep into the Homeless Voice, the Hollywood homeless shelter Cononie founded almost 15 years ago.

Outside Cononie's office, illuminated by the emergency lights from exit signs, sat one of his first residents, a bearded and delicate middle-aged man. Johnny McCormick had a child's intelligence and competing dependence on an oxygen machine, cigarettes, and pain medication. McCormick had lived under Cononie's roof since 1997 and could usually be found on his padded lounge chair in the hallway. The shelter is funded in part by homeless people hawking the affiliated street newspaper, the Homeless Voice, but McCormick never sold the paper. His relationship with Cononie was the definition of charity.

Right after Cononie stepped out of his office and into the hall, McCormick asked if he was leaving.

"No, no, no. I'm staying here tonight. We have an emergency," Cononie told him.

McCormick's breathing became quick and shallow. It worsened a couple of hours later when an electric company employee showed up and shut the power off entirely to check on the problem that caused half of the building's electricity to falter. There were no working outlets to plug in McCormick's oxygen concentrator. With labored breath, the ailing man grabbed at Cononie, as he always did when he was scared. His eyes widened to blue orbs, and his face dulled to gray.

Cononie needed to get McCormick out of the hot building and into the shelter's auxiliary office around the corner. He took the last small oxygen tank from the shelter's first-aid kit and hooked McCormick up. Then, he and three employees hoisted the frightened man as he sat in his lounge chair.

This wasn't an easy feat for 46-year-old Cononie, who weighs 350-plus pounds on a six-foot-one-inch frame and jokes about his shrinking "big, beautiful stomach." Cononie looks like he can tip at any moment, tilting from side to side quickly, busily, distractedly in his unofficial work uniform of a roomy T-shirt, basketball shorts, and rubber loafers. He rents a motorized chair for days when his knee and foot pain is at its worst, but accidental wheelies and collisions abound when he maneuvers it through the shelter.

Stifling air had settled in every corner of the building as the staff transported McCormick. Cononie backpedaled stair by stair, steadying McCormick as his own feet slammed with each of the steps. McCormick flailed and shifted his weight from side to side, and Cononie's body jerked to keep up with his movements. Cononie's shoulders strained as he braced McCormick's chair. Cononie's ankles barely kept him upright.

"Breathe slowly, breathe slowly, sweetie," Cononie told McCormick, who nodded up and down like a child.

The staircase dropped them off at an exit facing North Federal Highway. The team shuffled McCormick a half-block down the sidewalk to the shelter's administrative building, where they made McCormick comfortable. Cononie's body stayed intact long enough to situate McCormick — but neither of them could hold up for much longer.

Cononie has a history of being injury-prone, but transporting McCormick, along with a similar emergency incident about a week later, left him with unbearable pain in his knees, hips, left ankle, and shoulders. His hernia in his abdomen is worse than ever, and he may need surgery, but first he must lose significant weight, his doctor told him. Those who support Cononie's mission say his commitment to McCormick is indicative of a man who has put everything — his body, his money, his time — into the Homeless Voice shelter.

But many local homeless advocates question Cononie's methods, means, and general approach to the problem of homelessness. Critics wonder where exactly the money ends up from the army of hawkers selling the Homeless Voice on street corners. They claim he enables destructive behavior, and they have issues with a business model dependent on panhandling. Residents of Hollywood and of cities where his team sells papers often complain that the Homeless Voice vendors detract from their community.

"It's a pretty controversial facility," says Dianne Sepielli, who recently retired from the Broward County Homeless Education Program and is a longtime member of the Homeless Initiative Partnership, the county advisory board. "I don't agree with his philosophy of running his shelter... It's more of a relaxed, low-demand shelter."

Both sides agree, however, that Cononie serves a population turned away by many homeless-care organizations. At the main Homeless Voice facility, which houses almost 200 people on North Federal Highway, Cononie accepts almost anyone, regardless of addictions, mental disabilities, or whether they've been kicked out of other shelters. As the patriarch of a self-sufficient minisociety, Cononie makes sure anyone who walks through his doors is clothed, fed, given a bed, and, if they are able, provided with a job selling papers on street corners.


 

Daily about 5:30 p.m., a line forms in the second-floor corridor of the Homeless Voice shelter. It snakes past residents' rooms and ends in the office where Cononie and his staff hold court. Dozens of shelter residents returning from a hard day's work selling papers wait, usually patiently, to turn in their earnings. They are transported to and from their posts by vans driven by other residents.

They stand in a clean, dark hallway that is dingy with age and mostly bare, except for McCormick's lounge chair. Doors, usually closed, line both sides of the corridor and lead to residents' rooms, some comfortably decorated with pictures, televisions, and ruffled shower curtains, others fairly sparse.

Paper peddlers can turn in $40 on a slow day or more than $200 on a flush day. Fridays, Saturdays, and holidays are best. Usually, 35 to 40 percent of the earnings go to the shelter, but if someone makes very little on a particular day, the shelter may take less.

On a Friday in early November, Cathy Yeates-Krzeminski stands at the receiving end of the line, greeting workers and manning the change counter, a clanging and clicking machine the size of an industrial copier and coated with the light crud of frequent use.

Next to Yeates-Krzeminski, Ginny Dengola, an ex-resident who was at one time a high school principal, sits directly in front of the security-camera screen that ensures any nonsense in the hallway is duly noted.

"Menthol or regular?" she asks, organizing cash and repeating the question as part of this end-of-day assembly line. The shelter distributes cigarettes for $2 per pack; Cononie says it's so residents won't pick up partially used butts from the street, which he fears would spread hepatitis. Almost everyone accepts the cigarettes, and the small fee is deducted from their pay.

Collecting money also gives the shelter's employees a chance to check on the residents. "You did that and trained three people — bless your heart," Yeates-Krzeminski says to one man who brought in more than usual. Then she tells another man, "You need to take a shower; I can smell you from here."

"I know. I'll do that, Jesus Christ," he answers, frustrated, as if talking to his mother.

A woman with ashy blond hair, who looks like she would fit in better at a country club, collects her pay and says, "Thank you, Ginny. God bless you." Dengola explains that the woman has been through many programs but that alcohol has had a relentless grip on her life.

Cononie enters the room from the adjoining office. His face and lips are pale — he looks the way he says he feels, not well. A burning feeling in his chest has come back. "Blood pressure, maybe," he guesses at his ailment. Despite not feeling well, he shares his latest news — he has lost 16 pounds through several weeks of dieting. Cononie had been in the hospital overnight only a week prior, having suffered chest pain that resembled a heart attack but, to his relief, was nothing. His life, especially recently, is frequently interrupted by health scares and overnight hospital stays.

He chats with the residents passing through and reminds the man Yeates-Krzeminski told to shower that he also needs to wear sun block to shield his rosy, raw nose.

As a privately funded nonprofit operation, the Homeless Voice is not subject to the rules, regulations, and programs of government-funded shelters that abide by a structured program known as the Continuum of Care. If residents cannot sell the paper, the shelter deducts rent from their Social Security checks, usually about $18 per day depending upon the person's financial situation. There are also 33 to 40 emergency beds and about ten additional beds for residents who are unable to work and cannot pay. The Homeless Voice newspaper is a compilation of articles and editorials written by Cononie, his staff, and his residents.

Mark Targett — assistant director of the COSAC Foundation, Cononie's nonprofit that encompasses the Homeless Voice — and his wife design and edit the paper, and Cononie has final approval before a local printer rolls out the bimonthly publication. Targett met Cononie in the mid-1990s, when he was a senior in high school and Cononie was starting his shelter. He volunteered his time to reach his community service requirements for high school graduation until it grew into a permanent position. Meanwhile, Cononie helped Targett through a rough period of substance abuse toward the end of his teenage years. "I am who I am today because Sean believed in what I could do," Targett says. "I would have gotten rid of me a long time ago." Targett now lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children and has a computer technology business. His expertise also helps him run the Homeless Voice website.

 

Paper sales total about $5,000 on a good day. The money goes into a general pot of the COSAC Foundation. In 2008, the most recent year for which tax documents are available, newspaper sales totaled $985,698. Cononie also collected $410,000 in other donations, bringing the total revenue to nearly $1.4 million. After expenses, the shelter lost $45,795, leaving its bottom line of net assets at $666,789. Cononie has another registered nonprofit, COSAC Homeless Assistance Center, which is not required to publicly disclose tax information because Cononie says he incorporated it as a church. But he estimates it has assets of $3 million in property and $400,000 in funds.

Cononie's compensation, according to the 2008 tax documents, was $49,003, a modest salary compared to others in similar positions. For years, Cononie has faced claims that he has become rich off the shelter. It's hard to find evidence of it. He owns an average, three-bedroom home in Hollywood and drives a silver minivan.

With cash coming in from so many people, theft is a constant concern. "We have a very good system, like casinos have to keep the theft down," the Homeless Voice website explains. Precautions include numbered hats so drivers can report dishonest or unsafe behavior. There's a "crime watch line" where paper peddlers can report one another. And Cononie has a system of "secret shoppers" who deposit bills marked with dye that appears under a black light.

Cononie's model of funding a shelter by employing residents is unique for South Florida, but Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says a few similar shelters exist throughout the country. "It's not the first of its kind; however, it is revolutionary," Donovan says.

Revolutionary or not, using homeless residents to sell papers on street corners does not sit well with some advocates. MaryAnn Diamond, director of social services of the Broward Outreach Centers, worries about the implications of any facility that profits from residents. "That isn't a job skill," Diamond says of selling newspapers on the street. "That doesn't help them change their lives, and it's sad. I get sad when I see that... I mean, what does that do to their self-worth? It's already broken."

Lorraine Wilby, CEO of the TaskForce Fore Ending Homelessness, differentiates Cononie's shelter from those funded by the government. "Does he have people in his shelter who want to be there and are choosing to be there? Yes. At least they're not on the street," Wilby says. A "typical homeless shelter" aims to "get a person independent and on their feet... His shelter, people tend to stay a while. They tend to live there."

Cononie sees things differently. Selling the newspaper is the start of the training they can get at the shelter, he says. "The shelter is run by homeless people, and every one of them has sold those newspapers. For those that say it's a dead-end job, they can stick it up their ass," he says. After hawking the paper, residents can get promotions to sales manager responsible for a team of street-corner sales. Then they can move up to a driver, responsible for routes, safety, audits, and supplies, or they can graduate to working in the kitchen or at the front desk. For those who don't want to work for the shelter, they can find a job elsewhere and pay their rent, Cononie says, but few do that.

"Every one of these people have an opportunity to move up or move out or continue to sell papers," Cononie says. "Some of them, just getting them up at 6 o'clock is a major rehabilitative step."

For every person selling papers, there's another of the shelter's residents incapacitated in a way that prevents him or her from working. Marilyn Georges is one of the latter. "There's a tear in the intestine, and when I eat, it goes into the stomach lining," she says. She recently landed in the hospital for 11 months. "I look like a human skeleton — nothing but skin and bones." Her cheeks are deeply concave without a hint of pink. Her "front desk" identification card from her job at the shelter hangs from the beam of her bunk bed, revealing that her face was once full and she was lively enough to work before her body failed her.

Georges collects about $700 a month from Social Security, Cononie says. She turns her check over to the shelter, which takes $300 to $400 toward room and board.

 

Like many residents, she has her vices both in sickness and in health. Cononie explains that she now controls her addiction to painkillers by taking them only as directed. Asked whether she has a problem with narcotics, Georges, always quick with a response, says: "That I run out — that's my only problem."

Yet lately, it seems her body gives her more problems than substances ever could. "If it didn't hurt, I could get more done... I wish I could go back to work. I really do." But she is confined to watching TV until she returns to health — Survivor is her favorite show. "Ironically, I feel like I am a survivor," she says. "I did die twice... My whole life changed in this past year."

About ten days after her release from the hospital, Georges was admitted again for about a month. She is now on a program of physical rehabilitation, Cononie says.


Before Cononie could offer low-cost housing to people like Georges, he had McDonald's. In the 1990s, Cononie often pulled up to the McDonald's at Broward Boulevard and Andrews Avenue in his Lexus, walked in, and ordered a hundred hamburgers. Then he pulled his car around the corner to Tent City, a colony of hundreds of homeless people that was disbanded in 1999. A line often formed in front of him as he distributed seven or eight big bags of burgers, then longer lines when he switched to buying cheeseburgers after several requests.

Cononie's mother and sister both recall a similar scene when, as a teenager, Cononie often distributed sandwiches out of his first car, a red Camaro he bought with the money he made working in security at a retail store. Cononie's sister worries that his providing for others keeps him from getting enough rest and taking care of himself, but she is not surprised at his dedication. "His demeanor was all about trying to feel sorry for someone and trying to be helpful," Carlyce Cononie says.

Cononie has never been one much for rest, except when he succumbs to illness or injury. This was the case in 1984, when Cononie broke his foot trying to catch a thief while working as a security guard at J Byrons department store. Several surgeries never quite fixed the broken bones, Cononie says. A year later, he herniated three disks in his back slipping on a wet floor in a J Byrons' bathroom. He spent about 90 days in and out of the hospital, walked with a cane for four years afterward, and was out of work for almost a decade.

He sued the store over the injuries and received a settlement of about $1 million. With the money, he started an advertising company in 1994 and later branched out into communications with his pager and long-distance service company. A series of wise investments in mutual funds, stocks, his own businesses, and day trading multiplied his settlement into more than $10 million, Cononie estimates, though he says he now has significantly less.

He used some of the money to start housing homeless people in rented apartments in the 1990s. A few apartments mushroomed into a shelter that opened in 1996 in a residential Hollywood neighborhood just east of I-95. One of his first residents was McCormick, whom Cononie found at a bus stop. "I never dreamed of having a shelter at all until Johnny," Cononie says.

Neighbors rebelled against the shelter, and in 2001, the city forced Cononie to relocate. In February 2002, he purchased a former nudist hotel at 1203 N. Federal Highway and filled it with nearly 200 residents.

Controversy followed. Residents of the Hollywood Lakes neighborhood just to the east fought to close the shelter. City officials again claimed that the shelter violated zoning ordinances. But Cononie defended it as a low-income hotel. In July 2005, after a three-year tug of war, a judge ruled in Cononie's favor. He could continue business as usual with his loose rules and programs flexible to residents' wants and needs.

"People criticize me for it," he says. " 'Why do you let someone do drugs?' Well, should I let them overdose out on the street in a bush somewhere?" Cononie does not allow illegal drugs on the property, but he doesn't kick out residents who abuse substances elsewhere.

Even if he could, Cononie says he does not have time to fuss with residents unwilling or unready to kick their addictions. It is not uncommon for his workdays to last 20 hours. He is almost always at his desk doing computer work and smoking cigarette after cigarette between sips of diet Nestea and coffee, all while alternating among cell phone calls, resident requests, and questions from his staff. Catnaps punctuate his long days, and he takes them at the shelter in a dark bedroom that's hardly fancier than his residents' barracks.

 

Almost all of his 15 to 20 employees are former residents, including William Robb. Before coming to the Homeless Voice on March 15, 2003, Robb says he was stuck when he hit a low and spent a night under a bridge. "I'm underneath a friggin' bridge. I was drinking... I was just real desperate." He called 911 and told the dispatcher he was suicidal. Police took him to the hospital psych ward, and from there, with few other options, he ended up at Cononie's doorstep.

Robb started hawking papers and has worked his way up to case manager, which earns him up to $300 per week. "Sean's been very good to me. It's called tough love," Robb said. Robb's workdays sometimes last 12 hours, managing resident intake and helping Cononie.

He sleeps on a bunk bed in a room that he shares with five others, including his girlfriend, whom he met at the shelter. Robb and his girlfriend have comforters with gold brocade print draped over their bunk, resulting in a cozy little fort. Inside is Robb's "pride and joy." "What homeless person do you know that has a TiVo?" he asked, pointing to the box attached to a small TV.

Robb says that he doesn't keep track of how long he has been sober but that it could be a year by now. But he has had his share of problems both before and during his time at the shelter. "I basically got here because of my drinking," he said. In the past, Cononie has fined him and, in extreme cases, evicted him for abandoning his sobriety, but Robb's job responsibilities and impending consequences for his actions keep him sober for long stretches of time. It is those second, third, and fourth chances that differentiate Cononie's shelter from others, where Robb would have been kicked out for relapsing and likely not allowed to return for at least a month.

"There's an old saying, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink it," Cononie says. "I say, you can lead a horse to water, but if they don't want to drink it, you make them thirsty. Give them ideas of why they should be clean... keep them safe until they want to be clean... I've been criticized for this in Broward County for a long time."


One of Robb's roommates, Todrick Peterson, says that he was a carpenter before the housing bubble burst and that he lost his job in summer 2009 and began a year of unraveling. He spent much of the past year in jail and finalized his divorce as soon as he got out. Then he came to the Homeless Voice shelter in April.

A few months after moving in and beginning work selling the paper, Peterson broke one of the rules of the job: He walked into the street. A woman was dangling a $20 bill out her window, and Peterson thought he could make it to her car safely. As he stood among the cars, another vehicle tried to run the red light and plowed into him.

"I just remember seeing the air and seeing the ground. I could remember trying to move," he recalls. "I was conscious the whole time."

Cononie visited him in the hospital and told him not to worry about anything. "I'm just thankful I didn't get killed," Peterson says. "My bone popped out this way. My other bone popped out this way," he explains, leaning forward in his wheelchair and pointing at his scarred calf.

Peterson receives outside counseling and feels he is on an upswing. "Things are starting to change, and life is getting good," he says. Peterson moved out of the shelter in December.

Peterson's accident could not have happened if he had been staying at most homeless shelters, where panhandling on behalf of the shelter is not even remotely an option. But the limitation of local shelters with nonnegotiable guidelines and social services is that there are not enough beds to keep up with demand. In 2009, when the last count took place, there were 3,225 homeless people in Broward County. A quarter of them did not have a bed at a shelter. The biannual count takes place again later this month.

Donovan, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, notes that nontraditional organizations like Cononie's have become a necessary safety net as governmental solutions fall short. "It's a bunch of imperfect citizens coming together to create a perfect solution. Out of this very human limited collective comes something that is much greater than its parts," he says. "So what Sean is doing is, he doesn't have programs for programs' sake; Sean has programs because people in the shelter say this is what we need... It comes out of their own doing instead of being told, 'You have a problem, and this is how we solve your problem.' "

 

Unlike Cononie's shelter, where a huge portion of his day consists of arguing with residents about how many OxyContin pills they took and bargaining with them to take fewer so they don't overdose, the Broward Outreach Centers, transitional shelters, do not allow narcotics for any reason. Residents must visit their doctors and formulate a plan for alternative care, says Diamond, the BOC social services director.

Though Cononie's facility doesn't meet county qualifications, the TaskForce Fore Ending Homelessness still includes it on a list of private shelter options. Wilby, the task force's CEO, acknowledges it fills a gap. "What would happen if they ever shut him down?" Wilby asks. "God forbid, nobody wants to see that either. To just shut him down and put those people on the street? Wow, that would be a disservice to those people."

Government-funded shelters must undergo annual audits by a CPA who conducts a complete financial analysis, says Michael Wright, administrator of the county's Homeless Initiative Partnership. Cononie has never undergone this process; he says the audit may lead to changes he is not willing to make. "I wouldn't be allowed to have Johnny sitting in the hallway if I had a county grant," he said. "Johnny would have to be in a bed. Well, Johnny didn't like bedrooms."

Wright calls "just putting someone in a bed" a shortsighted solution. "If you're going to be housed [at a county-funded shelter], you have to have the services" consistent with government-mandated guidelines.


Johnny McCormick could not have been himself in every sense at any other shelter. He had hepatitis C, substance abuse issues, and severe mental disabilities and required constant attention. For the past two years, he slowed down, hardly moving from his roost in the hallway, his health failing.

Weeks after Cononie helped carry him down the stairs on his lounge, McCormick's face turned gray-blue one afternoon. His breath again turned short and fast as he faded in and out of consciousness.

"Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, wake up, wake up, wake up," Cononie remembers saying.

McCormick was admitted to the intensive care unit at the hospital. Cononie figured it was just like other times when McCormick had to be rushed to the hospital. "I thought it would be peachy in a couple of days," he says.

Instead, McCormick's condition worsened, and Cononie arranged for him to return to the shelter under hospice care. "He grabbed me and Lois on the shoulders, put our heads to his chest... pretty hard, in fact," Cononie says. Cononie stayed by McCormick's side, swabbing his mouth with a sponge to keep him comfortable. "I just wanted to make sure he knew he wasn't a bum," Cononie says.

Less than a day later, on September 16, McCormick's face was gray, and his eyes remained shut. The blips of his heart monitor became punctuated by longer stretches of time. He died just after 4 a.m.

Cononie held a memorial service in the shelter's cafeteria. He stood to speak about McCormick's life. "Well, I tried to. It didn't come out well," Cononie says. He could not get past thanking everyone for coming without choking up.

McCormick was a marker of time. He had been at the shelter since the very beginning, and now Cononie passes his chair every day, an empty space, almost sacred, in this otherwise irreverent place. "I guess I feel empty. He was my buddy... I can't tell him I love him anymore," Cononie says.

Like McCormick, Cononie would not appropriately fit anywhere else. Nowhere else could Cononie support so many people's lives while ignoring his own. Nowhere else could he forgo a personal life and a nuclear family for "a very large family" with nontraditional values.

As for Cononie, he has had several MRIs trying to figure out exactly what he injured carrying McCormick. Most days, he is planted at his desk with soreness, cigarette in hand, though he is now trying to quit, and his staff serving him iced tea and meals so his body can rest as much as possible. And every time he sinks into his cushy desk chair and looks at his computer, he sees a photo of McCormick, wrapped in his blue blanket, looking right at him.


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