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.”



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.”

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.’”

Finding faith and keeping it

By Celene Arvizu, University of Arizona

Ronald Simmons, a minister and resident at Coalition of Service and Charity homeless shelter, holds out a sturdy hand and waves toward a cab.

He carries two bags: one with a strap wrapped around his chest and the other held on his hand. I offer to take one and he says, “That’ll be a blessing sweetheart, thank you.” Simmons opens the door for me and lets me inside. He greets the driver.

“Mornin’ sir, how ya doin?”

The driver automatically responds with a robotic “good” and maintains his fixation on the road that hasn’t strayed since the start of his day.

Simmons settles in and fidgets with his papers in his bag, and tells me about the origins of his calling as a man of God.

“Since I was 4-years-old, they be tellin’ me I was a minister,” he said. “I’ve been running from it all my life.”

In his youth, Simmons heavily involved himself in the work of the church because “that was all there was to do.”


From a choir singer to usher, church and sermons were all that encompassed his life. The edge: He had some vices as a source of motivation.

“Before I went up there to sing, I’d smoke a joint,” he said. “Before I was on the podium, smoke a joint. Then after church I’d get drunk and the next morning I’d be spraying on some Gucci and chew some mints. My momma told me, ‘Boy you know it ain’t right. It ain’t right.’”

Simmons worked at the Greenburg Law Firm in Florida for eight years.

He described his life as having more than a sufficient income, with a morning routine of that was more than familiar with Jack Daniels. The firm he worked for was plagued with some troubles and had to let go of 250 people, including him.

This resulted in a total deterioration of his mental and physical health. His brother and sister, concerned with his health, checked him into the shelter to “keep their eyes” on him.

Since then he has been preaching the word of God to its residents as well as the community at New Hope Mission and Baptist Church.

The materials of the world have a way of poisoning the good intent of humanity, says Simmons. Satisfying the “greed and not the need” consists of a colossal high but violent crash.

We arrive at the church. At the doors, Simmons instantly begins introducing me to his familiars.


Illustration by Celene Arvizu, University of Arizona

In between hurried hellos, tight squeezes and bodies intertwining among passers-by, we get to the sermon room and sit together for the mornings first session.

Incidentally, the topic of interest for that day is being spiritually fulfilled in spite of living in a materialistic world. We read about deep affliction and poverty among the Macedonians. Sandra Walker leads the adult Bible Study for that morning.

“They didn’t need materials. They needed spirit. Poverty is not a factor that keeps you from living because you can still live life to its fullest potential without it,” said Walker.

“Giving is more than just this, more than physical,” she said, rubbing her fingers together in friction. “You give love.”

The sermon begins a little while after the study. Simmons moves up to the front and prepares for the short sermon he is about to give.

After the congregation is seated, Simmons speaks about laying our struggles before God, because he will supply all our needs even though everything points to scarcity.

Simmons’s way of speaking reveals that his soul is burned with the passion for a greater love. One that is unconditional and superhuman. For a moment, he isn’t the homeless preacher. He’s a man who incites faith in others.

After the sermon, he insists on buying me a meal supplied by the charity event held by the church that day. I let him know I appreciate it, but he really doesn’t have to. He said “Please, it’s my blessing for today.”

I walk into the shelter with the intention of finding a person whose faith was not supplied by a metaphysical-divine being.

I approach most of the few individuals residing in the cafeteria.

One man occupies a table located in front of the large, blaring television. I introduce myself and ask if I could interview him. He resolutely shakes his head no.

When I ask why not, he responds “Cause I don’t wanna say something and have people know it was me. I’ve been here for a while so they’ll know.” I insist, trying to casually strike up conversation about religion.

“Sorry babe,” he said. “I just won’t talk.”

A white haired, blue-eyed man in a faded-yellow shirt sits at the corner of the table behind us. He looked down and glanced back at me for a second, then back down.

That was my cue.

I grab a folded chair on the wall and whirl it out to the side of his. I quickly tell him that I was looking for a person who doesn’t believe in religion. I explain that I will, however, consider interviewing him if I thought he had a story. He smiles, nods and proceeds to pour out his past.

As opposed to someone who has always possessed the core desire of knowing a God, Frank J. Moore, 55, could not perceive the idea of a greater being and only knew Jesus Christ as a man in a story from a book in his youth.

Moore dealt with the struggles of dependency on drugs for twenty years. At age 8, smoking pot was a small part of his routine and popping pills followed shortly thereafter.

He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hepatitis B; he was denied any state-offered aid. When it endangered his well-being, those closest to him became concerned and called upon law enforcement as a last resort despite many attempts at offering their help and advice.

That’s when he was admitted into prison for aggravated assault.

“I just wasn’t wanting to take any help. And being mentally ill I became violent and couldn’t control myself,” said Moore.

One day, out of desperation for a change from the “same shit different day,” he turned on the television. Kenny Copeland, a Baptist preacher was on the screen. Something inclined him to keep watching. So he did.

“He kept talking about things I was going through,” he said. “That day he talked about troubles I was having; the next day he did the same thing, and then again the next day.”

Moore felt it wasn’t just a mere coincidence. A greater force was at play and steps from a cosmic blueprint were unfolding.

That was the beginning of his shift in awareness of God.

He became a Baptist by the time he was released from prison. Both his parents had passed away during his sentence and he was left with no place to go.

Instead of focusing on his situation, he focused on the potential for change. He honed his faith through trials and tribulations rather than dwelling on the burden of their weight.

“If someone is responsible for making the world, the stars and everything else, there must be a God,” Moore said.

Do people lose faith when they’re at the end of their rope? Not necessarily. It seems that most of the shelter’s residents have overcome their circumstances and developed a stronger spiritual insight.

Susie Derr, 59, works at the front desk of the shelter. When asked if she knew of someone who didn’t believe in something spiritual, she said it was unlikely.

“How can you not?” she said. “When someone rescues you from living on the streets, when you got a place to sleep and food to eat; you’re surviving.”

If anything they have become enlightened, treating their opposition as a stepping stone toward their own personal Zion. Because to these people, flesh and creature comforts are not home.

There’s something more that keeps them going: a foresight that involves a paradise of the soul, where no hunger exists, disease is unheard of, and past mistakes are wiped clean from the waves of time.

If there is such a place, it doesn’t hurt to try and believe.


Working for a free lunch

By Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

Stealing money from his employer to pay rent, Chris Padilla was fired and eventually lost his place to live.

“I ended up sleeping on the street,” he said.

Photo by Chris Padilla, Southern Connecticut State University

Photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

Five years ago, homeless shelter director Sean Cononie offered Padilla a place to stay in exchange for his help. He’s lived and worked at the Coalition of Services and Charity in Hollywood for two years before recently coming back four months ago.

“They started me off in the kitchen and after about two or three weeks in the kitchen,” Padilla said. “Sean met me in the kitchen and threw a hissy-fit because I was supposed to be out vending.”

Many of the shelter’s residents help pay their way by selling, or “vending,” the resident-run newspaper Homeless Voice. Vendors earn a commission based on how many newspapers they sell, said Ron Gauthier, Senior Administrative Staff member. Padilla says it’s good money.

“I was bringing in $50, $60, $70, it just kept on getting higher and higher every day,” said Padilla.

After a Kohl’s department store cut his working hours, Padilla started stealing from the store to pay his rent. He was caught and after confessing, was fired. Without that income he struggled to pay rent, but it wasn’t going to be his only problem.

“I told my cousin I was moving out,” Padilla said of his roommate. “He got drunk one night and I caught him going through my pockets trying to steal my money. I left and I ended up sleeping on the street.”

There are many other residents at the COSAC Homeless Shelter working in maintenance and housekeeping. Those residents receive a stipend, which is set by Cononie and the senior staff.

Jeff Doe, a 17-year-resident at COSAC, works in security.

“I’m looking out for people trying to come in and stealing from [residents],” Doe said.

Many residents that are on medication and may faint if they don’t take them, Doe said. He helps them out and calls for medical help if they need it.

Right now, he’s not being paid for his security services because of a drinking problem.

Cononie says he’s been doing a good job at recovering and will soon be paid.

Some residents get more out of their jobs than money. The front desk manager, who everyone knows as Susie, came to the shelter with broken ribs and a broken foot. She declined to disclose her last name. Susie says she has brittle bone syndrome and thanked COSAC for helping her get better.

Photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

Photo by Carl Castro, Southern Connecticut State University

“They put me through Primary Care, a medical clinic that helps people with low income,” Susie said. “They ran tests, or what not, and got me prescriptions for $2 rather than $200.”

Susie said that all the residents do a “Hollywood Walk,” where residents go out and clean up the entire block for the community. Cononie said he is trying to develop life skills—skills that residents are grateful for.

“I look at Sean as a father,” Padilla said. “I never grew up with a father and he looks at me as a son. If there’s anything I need he’s there for me and likewise for him.”


How not to be homeless

By Sandeep Varry, Florida International University

When looking for advice on avoiding homelessness, a homeless shelter can be one of the best places or start.

The operations staff at the Coalition of Service and Charity homeless shelter have witnessed countless people fill up their rooms. The one thing that bothers them is that many of the homeless end up occupying the beds at the shelter due to bad financial planning.

Few people who reside in COSAC were born homeless. Many of them owned houses, had well-paying jobs and a couple of them even had over $100,000 in their savings.

“Listen to me, kids,” said Ginny Dangola, head of COSAC operations. “Do anything that you want but don’t become homeless.”

Dangola was modest and funny, but sounded as serious as a military general when she started talking about responsible financial planning.

“Always put money aside — at least 20 percent of you earning,” she said. “Doesn’t matter if you earn that money working for a bank or selling lemonade on the streets.”

Roger Wickham, who has worked in operations for 17 years, jumped into the conversation to recount a story about a person who owned a $250,000 home before he ended up in the shelter for the last 10 years of his life.

“Save! Save! Save!” Wickham said with a laugh. He said the new arrivals feel embarrassed to reveal the true reason why they’re homeless.

Wickham himself claimed that he had a lot in his bank account before he spent it recklessly and ended up at COSAC. He said that financial planning is something people should start young.

He said they should have more than one source of income and should constantly deposit into a savings account from which they can’t easily withdraw.

“Lots of money is spent on doing things that are not necessary and are done only because you have excess money on hand,” Dangola said. “Avoid that and save it. I always have advice to offer, either one can take it or end up here.”

She was full of facts and numbers as she patiently went through each piece of advice she had gathered over her decade at COSAC. She repeatedly said how an average American family is only two paychecks away from being homeless.

“You look like someone who is smart and is going to be very successful,” Dangola said. “Make sure you come back but only to say hello,” Dangola said as she laughed and said goodbye.


Art: A healing pastime

By Melhor Leonor, Florida International University

Most of Courtney Cusack’s belongings fit in a plastic shopping bag. Nestled between a pack of cigarettes and an old toothbrush surfaces her most prized possession: a pack of color pencils.

Cusack, 60, is a four year resident of the Coalition of Service and Charity homeless shelter, where she sits quietly on a corner of the dining hall to cut letter-sized paper in fours and draw “mostly abstracts, with faces.”

When she thinks about not being able to draw, Cusack begins to pull at her hair. For her, like for many other residents, art is a way to express emotions, tell stories and simply kill time.

Photo by Stephanie Mason, Florida International University

Photo by Stephanie Mason, Florida International University

“I can’t even imagine the thought of not drawing,” she said. “I hate television. There is no one to talk to around here. It gives me something to do.”

The small pieces of paper are covered in intricate patterns and she takes pride in how she mixes colors. She doesn’t sleep very well at the shelter, but as soon as she arrived, she found a way to spend her day.

“When I first got here, there was a pack of color pencils on the counter, and I asked if I could have them,” said Cusack, who hasn’t stopped drawing. “I want something different for the eye to look at. I want to improve my art.”

Inspiring other residents is another role art plays in the halls of COSAC. The soft tune of a guitar can be heard on the halls of the shelter’s second floor. Most of the time, it’s Susie’s hands on her guitar strings playing a requested song.

“They all have their favorite song that they want me to play,” Susie, 59, said. “It’s fun to watch somebody else have fun, and I really enjoy playing.”

When Susie came to the shelter two years ago, she became roommates with Lynn Williams, 67, who was recovering from a stroke.

“I was in a bad state,” Williams said, who now does her own laundry and enjoys reading and watching television. “She brought me back to life.”

Photo by Stephanie Mason, Florida International University

Photo by Stephanie Mason, Florida International University

Susie has two guitars that she has bought by saving from her retirement checks. She said that when she only had one, people would say they wanted to play with along with her. After she got the second, she couldn’t find anyone who remembered how to play.

“They would say, ‘Oh, it’s been too many years, I’ll just listen,’” Susie said.

Video by Stephanie Mason, Florida International University

Cusack, who prefers others not touch her drawings, holds her drawings close in a neat stack tucked inside her composition book. But last Valentine’s Day, she donated a piece for other residents to look at and the shelter tacked it on the walls of the dining hall.

For others at the shelter, expression isn’t colors or guitar strings. Ronald Simmons has recently started to put words to paper to say what he wants to say.

“I may not walk the way you feel I should walk, I may not talk the way you want me to talk, but you don’t know my story,” Simmons writes in one poem he wrote on Aug. 24.

He said the inspiration for this piece, titled “You Don’t Know My Story,” came from a misunderstanding that resulted in hurtful rumors at his church. It’s his way of telling people, “don’t point your finger.”

“I asked God to give me something that strengthens somebody or helps somebody,” Simmons said. “When you’re reading it, I hope one little line touches your heart.”

Simmons wants to spread his writings throughout the shelter, and finds ways to duplicate them. “I go wherever I can get someone to copy them for me,” he said. “I’m going to keep writing until God tells me stop.”