By Loan Le
You’re not supposed to stick antibiotic capsules up your butt. You’re not supposed to drink eight to 10 cans of Monster Energy drink every day. And you’re definitely not supposed to pee 1 1/2 gallons of urine during a four-hour power sleep.
But Sean Cononie, owner of the Stay Plus Inn homeless complex, gets away with this because he says he has more important things to worry about.
The ashtray on Cononie’s desk is rimmed with six burning cigarettes – all his. In between alternating drags of those cigarettes, he gulps from a 20-ounce Monster energy drink, one of many he’ll consume in a day. Recently, he went through 20 cans in a day. Like a revolving door, his staff members walk in, sit down across from him, and tell him what’s new in their lives. Then they leave when the walkie-talkie starts chirping, but not before lending Cononie a lighter for a cig when he asks.
Only when a pause settles in a conversation, or when his walkie-talkie is silent, does he think about himself.
Pulling out multicolored bottles from a baggie, Cononie is picking out his daily dosage of medication. As he places down the pills, one by one, he lists his conditions. Sleep apnea. High cholesterol. High blood pressure. Chronic joint pain. Chronic lower-leg edema. Abdominal hernia.
He keeps these conditions at bay, taking his pills. Sometimes he does water aerobics in the pool. It helps that he has a shelter to run, so he could find projects throughout the day. But he says it’s hard to get in a routine, with what happens at the hotel.
Just two weeks ago, Cononie had to save a life. Stay Plus resident Frank, a legless, wheelchair-bound man, ate a morphine pain patch to get high. Overdosing, his body slack and mouth agape, he needed CPR, which Cononie performed until the EMTs arrived.
Frank’s OK now, and he says his morphine patch, which is supposed to last three days, has run out. In his office, handing Frank another patch for his pain, Cononie warns him not to eat it.
“I don’t want to find you dead,” he says.
Frank answers, “Yes, sir,” and rolls away.
He can deal with the residents, Cononie says, because “saving a life is easy.
“But dealing with all this government pushback, that’s what I have to deal with. This year has been mentally challenging.”
Hollywood kicked out COSAC to “cleanse the city of unwanted vagabonds,” reported the Sun Sentinel, and ultimately Cononie was given a hand he couldn’t play. Seeing Hollywood emergency response slacking, the stigma of the shelter keeping them away, Cononie needed to move for the residents’ sake. “They deserve better,” he says.
Knowing that “he takes on too much and gets short-winded, we take care of him,” Jeanne Cardamone says.
Cardamone doesn’t work with Cononie anymore, but she visits the low-income hotel because she misses the residents. She jokes that she and Cononie are divorced, and says she know him inside and out. She’s there any time he needs her, because he does the same for the residents. “I don’t know where he gets the empathy. He loves them,” Cardamone says.
“I don’t even want to think about if something happened to Sean. It’d be tragic. We would be shattered, broken, lost,” she says. “I don’t think we could get anyone more empathetic than Sean.”
Mike O’Hara has worked with Cononie for seven years and followed him from Hollywood to Haines City. Like everyone, he’s seen the job’s toll on Cononie. O’Hara tells him to think about what would happen if Cononie’s health got in the way, to think of all he’s done for residents. “You only live once,” he’d say to Cononie. “It’s great that you help, but sooner or later, you have to think of yourself. You’re only promised tomorrow.”
Cynthia “Cindy” Malvita, Cononie’s right-hand person, “since he’s already left-handed,” also notices a change in Cononie, whom she’s known since high school. It’s not just sleep apnea keeping him up at night.
In Hollywood, “he had friends and enemies, but still a lot of supporters. And people who really understand Sean,” Malvita says. “Here, they judge him and the homeless.”
Malvita makes sure he does something as simple as eating. “I don’t give him an option,” she says. She makes him smoothies with strawberries, blueberries, and bananas, and sneaks in some chocolate flavor, because she knows Cononie loves it. During lunchtime the other day, she fed him sliced mozzarella, tomato, avocado, drizzled with balsamic vinegar, because she just wants him to eat.
“He’s stubborn; he’s a mule. Because he’s so passionate about what he does,” Malvita says.
Back at his desk, Cononie lights yet another cigarette. The Monster can is empty. It’s noon. Cononie shrugs when asked what keeps him going. “If I don’t fight, if we don’t keep fighting, this group will be extinguished in the future.”