Sean Cononie's COSAC Foundation brings its "self-supported community run by poor people" to Polk County

Sean Cononie -
Sean Cononie

There’s a story in yesterday's Sen-Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel about a group of homeless people who were exiled from heir former home city of Hollywood, Florida. For years, they’d lived in a former nudist hotel that had been converted into a residence for the chronically homeless by an organization called the COSAC Foundation, which is led by a man named Sean Cononie, who’s been working with the homeless in South Florida for nearly 20 years.

But this week, after a protracted battle with the city, Cononie, COSAC and 112 residents of the Hollywood hotel, packed up their things, hit the road and headed to a new home in Haines City, about 40 miles from Orlando.

The story in the Sentinel is, technically, a success story – a group of formerly homeless people have a home, and as Cononie puts it, his organization has managed to do, “What every America president has been trying to do without success: Create a welfare system that runs at a profit.” His unconventional approach to helping the homeless, which includes taking in chronically homeless people nobody else wants to care for and allowing those who are willing and able to work for the organization selling newspapers to support its mission, has been praised by some and criticized by others. But in the end, he’s managed to create something unique.

“It’s a self-supported community run by poor people,” he says. “The ones that have funds pay for the ones that don’t have funds.”

But the people interviewed in the Sentinel’s story didn’t seem to care what the organization has accomplished – instead, they told the paper, they already want it gone. In a distressing case of NIMBYism, people interviewed said that they’re distraught that COSAC has paid a hefty sum to buy a 125-room hotel where the organization can set up its HQ and give people reasonably priced rooms to rent, ranging from free to $24 a month.

At the moment, Cononie says, the property, a former Howard Johnson’s that’s now a Stay Plus Inn, is a low-income hotel that rents rooms to migrant workers who travel through the area in search of farm work. At the moment, he says, his group is sharing the property with blueberry pickers who’ll be working in the area until June, but he points out that his group will be long-term residents with a stake in the organization and the property – something you don’t get when you rent to people who are just passing through one town on their way to the next.

The COSAC Foundation purchased the hotel recently after being, essentially, run out of town by Hollywood city officials who felt the organization’s COSAC Quarters Hotel for the Poor, a place where people with no place to go could stay for a small fee (or for free if they had no money to offer), hurt the city’s image. The operation grew from a small operation when it was first founded in 1999 into an organization that has served up to 45,000 meals per month, publishes a newspaper called the Homeless Voice (which is what COSAC residents sell to raise money for themselves and for the organization) and raises money for other homelessness-advocacy efforts.

But from practically the beginning, Hollywood wanted COSAC Quarters, which it considered an eyesore in an area primed for reinvestment, gone. In 2002, the city sued to shut the hotel down, arguing that the organization’s operations weren’t in keeping with zoning.

“They are not operating a hotel, but a shelter in an area that is not zoned for that,” Hollywood’s city attorney told the Miami Herald in 2005, just before a judge ruled that COSAC’s activities were legal and that the city couldn’t force them out. “If you want to operate a shelter, that's fine. But you have to do it within the industrial district.”

After years of battling, Cononie finally agreed late last year to let the city of Hollywood buy him out. It paid him nearly $5 million for the properties he owned, and in exchange, he agreed to move his operations out of the city – and he even agreed to the city’s rather extreme request that he not attempt to live in Hollywood for the next 30 years. Why such an extreme request? One city official said he was afraid that if Cononie were allowed to live in Hollywood, he might allow homeless people to live with him.

Now Polk County officials seem to be singing a familiar tune.

"We would hope that the folks in [Hollywood] would deal with their own problems and not ship them somewhere else," Gary Hester, deputy manager for Polk County, told the Sentinel. "I don't know that he can operate a homeless shelter there. … It's not important what he calls it. It's what he is doing there. I'm not sure this fits with the current land usage there."

Cononie, though, says the new home isn’t going to be a traditional, emergency-level shelter that takes people in off the street. “We’re not set up for that,” he says. Rather, he wants to give the people he’s brought with him a safe, affordable place they can stay – a home – and maintain the self-sustaining community he says they’ve built over the years. If anything, he says, he thinks the group will be good for the local economy.

“I see us boosting the economy,” he says. “Our guys spent $1,800 at the convenience store on the first day. I told them to keep the receipts. Between Monster [energy drinks] and cigarettes, we spent $1,795.”

Plus, Cononie points out, COSAC can partner with Polk and surrounding counties to work on homelessness issues and provide resources that don’t currently exist in the region.

“We will fight tooth and nail if Polk County comes after us,” Cononie says. “But on the same token, we’ll also sit down and talk to them. Tell us, what you do like, what you don’t like. Talk to us.”

In the end, he’s offering something that he says everybody working to end homelessness says they truly want – a safe place for homeless people to go that doesn’t interfere with anybody else’s business. “We’re doing just what the president wants and the government wants,” he says. “That is, housing first.” 

Editor's note: Here are the glib "sharelines" that the Sentinel suggests for people to use to share its version of this story on social media:


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