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.
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.
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.
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.”