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.