Broken shelter, broken body

By Roberto Roldan, University of South Florida

Sean Cononie knows he needs to change.

As director and founder of the Coalition of Service and Charity, Cononie has spent years working 24-hour shifts — surviving on a daily diet of five cases of Nestea and two packs of Marlboro Reds.

Right now Cononie says he works at least 20 different jobs a day: “medical doctor, security, case manager, fact checker, mediator” and so on.

Cononie is COSAC — in fact, some even call the shelter Coalition of Sean Anthony Cononie.

“I even have a ‘life pack’ near me. I don’t go anywhere without it,” Cononie said, cigarette in hand.

What Cononie calls his life pack is a big black case full of morphine, heart medication, aspirin and a defibrillator. He has life packs, one in his car and one right outside his office.

photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

A couple of months ago, Cononie broke his knee cap for the second time and admits he is as slowed down as he has been in a long time, though he continues to work excruciatingly long shifts.

For years his lifestyle has concerned his doctor and clients, but after a number of friends and close residents passed away over the last five months, Cononie received a wake up call.

The recent death of Lois Cross, his closest friend who spent the last seven years sleeping on the floor and working 120 hours a week alongside him, sent the message to Cononie loud and clear.

He doesn’t want to be next.

The changes in his lifestyle have to start with the COSAC shelter because it is his life.

The plan, according to Cononie, needs to include consolidating the amount of properties the COSAC Foundation currently owns to move to a larger shelter that is more ergonomic.

“We have too many properties…” He said. “We have to become small to become bigger.”

Cononie said he also needs to change the way the staff and administrative side of the COSAC shelter operates. He is concerned that if he goes down, the shelter will follow.

“It’s like Caesar,” Cononie said. “If Caesar falls, everything goes down.”

Michael Stoops is the Director of Community Organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless. He agrees that changes need to be made at COSAC to make it sustainable.

Stoops has been friends with Cononie for years and has worked with the National Coalition for the homeless since Cononie opened the original COSAC shelter on Lincoln Street 16 years ago.

Stoops said he is also concerned that the COSAC shelter suffers from the founder’s syndrome, where Cononie holds so much power and influence that his death would make it hard for the COSAC shelter to function on even a basic level.

“Sean is a 24/7 person. He is truly committed to the cause and he is like the leader there,” Stoops said. “He really needs to learn how to pace himself and make sure he’s there for as long as possible.”

Cononie said if the appropriate changes are made at the shelter, if he can hand off some control and finally start to spend time at home rather than live at the shelter, then positive changes to his health will begin to follow.

“I believe God gives you what you can handle and right now I can’t handle it,” he said.

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Sean, normally. #wwff14

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The issue currently facing Cononie however is how to hand over responsibilities at the shelter and who should take them on.

Mark Targett, assistant director of The Homeless Voice newspaper run by the shelter, has been with COSAC since day one.

Though he seems to be the obvious choice to take over for Cononie, he said he views Targett as a son —the highest honor is his eyes — and is concerned about Targett giving more attention to the shelter than to his wife and two kids.

Photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

Photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

Cononie doesn’t want Targett sitting at his desk, living the same lifestyle he has found himself stuck in.

Targett agrees that his wife and children prevent him from ever being as dedicated to the shelter as Cononie, but said when he moves down to Hollywood in January, he might be able to offer a solution.

“I can’t do what Sean does and I don’t think anyone could do what Sean does,” Targett said. “I think the solution might just be to simplify things…let Sean focus on what he does best.”

The changes in store for the COSAC shelter are murky at best. Cononie said even he doesn’t know exactly what will be done, but there is one thing he is sure about:

“Some changes need to happen and they need to happen soon.”



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A shelter without Sean

By Ally Krupinsky, University of South Dakota

The Coalition of Security and Charity shelter is Sean Cononie’s life. It’s also what’s killing him.

Cononie does his sleep-deprived work behind a desk littered with paperwork and a cloud of cigarette smoke. He suffers from severe heart issues, and his back and knees are shot.

Cononie runs and is the founder of the COSAC shelter. When Cononie dies, he wants Mark Targett to take over the shelter.

“The best thing in my life was meeting Mark,” Cononie said.

Mark Targett is the assistant director of the COSAC shelter. He spends two weeks at the shelter every other month because he works better from home.

Targett is 10 years sober, but he didn’t want to comment on his background further.

Cononie loves Targett like a son. But as close as the two are, Targett isn’t sure he’ll be able to fulfill Cononie’s wish.

Targett’s kids cover Cononie’s bedroom walls. They’re family.

“Whether the fact that we’re blood related or not, doesn’t matter,” Cononie said. “We’re blood related.”

Cononie and Targett have different approaches when it comes to dealing with the shelter. Cononie balances everything at once, while Targett takes things slowly and makes sure that Cononie’s plans follow through, Targett said.

For now, it works. But the future may be a different story.

“Sean’s just such a special person,” Targett said. “Sean is kind of the glue that holds everything together and for him not to be there, there would be a huge void.”

Cononie has dedicated his life to the COSAC shelter. He works a wall away from where he sleeps – when he gets to it.

Targett, who has a wife and two kids, doesn’t know how he’ll compare.

“I would never be able to donate as much time as he does to the shelter,” Targett said. “I guess my biggest fear is I wouldn’t want it to close down. I would want to see everything he’s worked for his entire life be a permanent thing.”

Photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

Photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

It’s been over a year since Cononie and Targett have discussed what will happen once Targett takes over. 
Targett doesn’t have a plan. He may work at the shelter full-time, or he may hire someone else entirely to replace Cononie.

“I think you’d have to get three different people to replace Sean just because he does so much for the shelter,” Targett said. “And I don’t think I would be able to mimic exactly what he does.”
Targett said he might have to turn people away and implement hours of operation in order to keep the shelter functioning without Cononie.
“He’s able to take on more,” Targett said. “He always wants to take on more, and I’m just not in that position to do that.”

COSAC at midnight

By Ally Krupinsky, University of South Dakota
I see a dimly lit driveway-turned-shelter hangout. There are two American flags and a string of Christmas lights. There’s an orange razor on the floor. Empty cans of salsa collect cigarette butts. There’s a corner full of wheelchairs and walkers. Miscellaneous recliners line the left side; there are shelves stacked haphazardly with books towards the back. There’s a full trash can below a sign that says ‘Some of my friends are flakes’ with a picture of a snowman.

I see a scattered group of people. Most of them sit in furniture and wheelchairs alongside the fence. Some people slowly wander by. At first, the residents are wary. But once a few of them get talking, they don’t stop.

One woman, Fran, says she feels safe as long as no one comes by with a gun. Eventually she gets out of her wheelchair and talks. There’s another resident, Carlos, who listens with a smile. Some people keep their distance. They seem hostile, or maybe indifferent. One of them, who never shared his name, said the shelter at night was “pretty gay.” Joe, the security guard, sits opposite the residents with a walkie talkie. At first he’s dozing, but his face brightens when someone says hello. He says, “I do like to help people, and this place help me.” He’ll be here all night.

I see a different security guard, Cliff, jogging to the front door. Inside, a man named Mike sits in a chair, complaining of chest pain and breathing difficulty. Staff members take his blood pressure and decide to call an ambulance. Cliff asks him different questions. How’s your vision? Is your chest tight? Mike answers, and his chest jerks as he breathes laboriously. At one point he says, “Enough has happened to me already. I don’t need no more.” Cliff is tense; the desk worker, Mike, is unfazed. Another staffer, Tom, helps when he can. Mike remains wearily coherent until the ambulance comes. He shuffles to the stretcher in slippers.
I see a different resident, Wade, sit and watch Mike’s departure. He’s wearing Adidas slip ons, navy blue pajama pants, a white t-shirt and a frog-covered visor. He almost immediately reveals his calves, which are wrapped in bandages. He says the doctors don’t know what his disease is; they don’t know why he’s lost most of his circulation. He says, “I’ve had a great life. But this hit and I lost it all.” He talks about his past jobs. He says his dad was an alcoholic, which is why he’s never become an addict. He seems genuine and caring. He’s grateful for the shelter and the fact that he can still walk.

Midnight in a homeless shelter

Contributed by Carl Castro, Southern Connecitcut State University, Nicole DeCrisco, DePauw University, Ally Krupinsky, University of South Dakota and Roberto Roldan, University of South Florida

Read the full Storify


Last month, Carlos Perez lost his low-rent apartment in a fire. His landlord just so happened to be Sean Cononie, founder and director of the COSAC homeless shelter in Hollywood, Florida.
For the last 30 days Perez has lived in a cramped room adjacent to the shelter. Perez doesn’t care though, as long as he has his computer. Perez has been a gamer since DOS. He said his first game was Bedlam, an interactive text-based adventure game that was released in 1986.
Nowadays, Perez stays current with gaming through Steam and massive multiplayer online games like World of Tanks.
“When there were no graphics you had to use your imagination,” He said. “Now, the graphics are so great that you don’t really care.


Shortly after midnight, Mike Allen, a resident at COSAC had difficulty breathing.

Allen exhibited other heart-attack-like symptoms including chest pain, slowed mental processes and an odd taste in his mouth, according to Cliff Pieczarka, a security guard. Pieczarka then decided that it was time to call an ambulance.

“With everything combined together, you want to get him to the hospital,” Pieczarka said.

Pieczarka said the response times of the ambulance was normal, despite an approximate 10 minutes that the ambulance sat in front of the shelter after Allen was put on the stretcher.

Photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

Photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

“They have to do many many tests,” he said, offering a reason for the seemingly long intermittent time.

The ambulance team can test heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen levels and even have the ability to perform an emergency electrocardiogram (EKG).

“[An EKG is] going to tell them exactly what’s going on with that heart,” Pieczarka said.

He said that it also speeds up the intake process at the hospital to get the best possible treatment.

Pieczarka noted that Allen was in the hospital last week.

Ally Krupinsky, a Will Write For Food (WWFF) staff member, saw Pieczarka run inside the shelter.

“I just didn’t know what was going on,” Krupinsky said.

She noted that his chest jerked while breathing in an irregular manner.

“I don’t think he could have faked that,” she said.

Despite a few residents coming outside to find out what was going on,  Lakeidra Chavis, also a WWFF staff member, was surprised that a crowd of residents did not form.

“People just kind of kept to themselves,” she said.

From night seizures to night security

By Roberto Roldan, University of South Florida

Because of his daily seizures, Cliff Pieczarka, the night security guard at the Coalition of Service and Charity homeless shelter, does not remember years or dates very well.

An experience Pieczarka said he does remember, however, was when he walked into a client room during his rounds at the shelter and discovered someone had stopped breathing.

Without hesitation, Pieczarka said he began performing CPR until the ambulance arrived.

“That’s what I do,” Pieczarka said. “I deal with the patients. I get the EMT’s space. I respond to emergencies as best I can.”

After a childhood battle with leukemia, and the subsequent seizures that left him permanently disabled, Pieczarka‘s dream of joining the fire department and following in his families footsteps seemed just that: a dream.

But when Pieczarka wandered into the homeless shelter in 1999 at the age of 19, he found a home, a purpose, and a job in public service he could not have had otherwise.

Whenever he is needed, Pieczarka now spends nights at the shelter guarding the property, doing bed checks, and liaising between medical personnel and the shelter that took him in.

Photo by Stephanie Mason, Florida International University

Photo by Stephanie Mason, Florida International University

“The shelter took me from when I was in a bad position to being able to learn something,” Pieczarka said. “It’s what I do; it’s what makes me complete in a way.”

Working the night shift at the shelter serves a dual purpose.

When Pieczarka first began working at COSAC, his gran mal seizures—a seizure characterized by a loss of consciousness and muscle contractions— were mostly nocturnal.

Sean Cononie, director of COSAC, said Pieczarka’s seizures, which were happening six or seven times a day at the time, got him to notice Pieczarka in the first place.

“He needed someone to watch him at night,” Cononie said. “So if he was doing security or public service, there were other guards out at the same time.”

And Pieczarka does have seizures regularly while on the job, Cononie said.

“But if you ask Cliff, he’ll probably tell you the last time he had a seizure was two months ago when really it was two days ago,” he said. “That happens a lot to people with seizures; they don’t remember.”

Pieczarka said he feels like Sean noticed something in him and took him under his wing at the shelter. Sean helped him get an apartment, security training and a job that makes him feel like he’s helping people and accomplishing his dream.

Pieczarka also found purpose in Francesca, a woman he met while patrolling the shelter property in 2010, as well as his relationship with her two children.

“I was up near the street on the (main property), and I saw a woman in the street that was crying,” Pieczarka said. “I gave her my card and told her that if the shelter can help her with anything or if I can help her with anything, call me.”

A week later, Pieczarka said him and Francesca went out to lunch and hit it off.

Francesca currently lives in another state, but Pieczarka said he maintains his relationship with her and her two children over the phone.

He calls it “phone-line love.”

Francesca’s teenage son also wants to be in public service as a police officer.

“I talk to him and tell him some of the things I see or things that happen at the shelter,” he said. “I tell him ‘You don’t know that these things happen yet because you’re young, but this is what you’re going to have to deal with, too.’”