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Three Squares & a BED

Jacksonville welcomes legendary nonprofit

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You may have already seen Travis Estridge, or someone like him. It’s hard to miss the neon-colored shirts he and others wear while peddling papers at major intersections around Jacksonville. You may have read “Homeless Voice” on the shirt or on the papers in their hands without really knowing what it was about.

Standing on the narrow median of Beach Boulevard where it intersects with St. Johns Bluff Road as traffic whizzed by in both directions, Estridge, 23, explained how he came to be selling papers on the street. His family fell on hard times when he lost his job detailing cars; since then, he’s been unable to find steady work.

“Last year I’ve applied for, like, 45 jobs,” he said. His fiancée works at Waffle House, but the wages weren’t enough to support the couple and their young sons, one who is three years old, the other six months. That’s where the Homeless Voice and the nonprofit COSAC Foundation came in, providing the family with housing and food, and Estridge with a job of sorts.

COSAC Foundation publishes Homeless Voice as a way to raise awareness and funds as well as offer employment to the community it serves. The foundation has sold papers in this area in the past, but a few months ago, foundation staff members asked the city if they could start selling papers in town on a regular basis. The city agreed.

Five or six days a week, Estridge and a handful of others rise early in the morning to ride from Lake City to Jacksonville, where they spend the day selling the Homeless Voice. There’s no fixed cost for the paper—they just ask folks to give what they can. For every dollar people give Estridge for papers or donations, he gets to keep 60 cents. It’s a bit of a trek down I-10 from Lake City to Jacksonville, but the city’s larger population equals more opportunities to sell papers.

Walking back and forth selling newspapers in the street may not be a dream job, but for Estridge and others, like Ed Fobdak, who was selling papers on the other side of the intersection and has been with the Voice for two years, it’s a way to earn some money and some self-respect.

COSAC Foundation founder Sean Cononie has spent the better part of his adult life working with the homeless. Straight-talking, passionate and big-hearted, Cononie has been threatened, harassed and literally banished from Hollywood, Florida, the nonprofit’s longtime headquarters. And all because he’s dedicated his life to sheltering, caring for and feeding the homeless.

Cononie founded the nonprofit in 1997; it doesn’t take government funds, just donations and a portion of the proceeds from selling the Homeless Voice Street Newspaper. With these funds, Cononie is able to feed and house 150 to 200 people in Florida.

Cononie also doesn’t do what prejudiced public officials might like, which is to take their shit with a smile. In 2014, the Sun-Sentinel described him as a “maverick advocate for the homeless,” whose unflinching advocacy was long a bee in the bonnet of officials in Hollywood, which, after feuding with him for years, eventually agreed to pay $4.8 million to buy Cononie’s properties there on the condition that he not return to live in the town for 30 years.

It’s hard to imagine what could be so wrong with Cononie’s approach; he’s a pioneer of ‘housing first,’ the idea that before you can rectify the circumstances that cause homelessness, you need to get people into housing. Nowadays ‘housing first’ has become commonplace, but in the late ’90s, it was practically revolutionary.

“Taking care of homeless people is simple. You just put a roof over their head,” Cononie told me over the phone.

There are people who have lived with the group for decades, he said. To hear him describe it, it seems as much a family as a safety net for the poor.

In Lake City, Cononie’s nonprofit runs Veterans Inn, a shelter—though home is probably a more fitting term—where clients live and some work. Applying the principles of capitalism, Cononie says he creates a situation wherein each individual is in charge of their own destiny. “The more they do, or the better they do, they get to kind of pick how they want to live,” he said.

There’s no fixed cost to stay there; if clients have money, they pay a small amount of rent, if they don’t have money, that’s fine, too. There are also no hard-and-fast rules for residency. Cononie doesn’t turn people away for conditions common to those who experience homelessness, such as hygiene and mental health issues. He just finds a spot that suits their needs.

“We don’t like to throw people out,” Cononie said.

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