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'We All Need to Treat the Homeless A Little Better'

May 21, 2006 Michael Mayo

`We all need to treat the homeless a little better’
May 21, 2006

Some people called Michael Sorcinelli “Suit Man,” because he’d wander the streets of Fort Lauderdale, Wilton Manors and Oakland Park in jackets and button-down shirts that somehow looked freshly pressed.

“That’s what I always heard, that he was well-dressed for a homeless man,” said his mother, Edna Sorcinelli Peim. “I used to dress him like a little businessman when he went to kindergarten. I’d dress him in little jackets and little bowties. … He always liked to look good.”

Sorcinelli lived on the streets a long time, but he tried to maintain his dignity.

Many tried to help him through the years, but mostly he wanted to be left alone.

Until last month.

“Mom, I have cancer,” Sorcinelli said in an April 21 phone call to his mother. “I don’t want to die alone.”

“I won’t let you,” his mother said.

A few days later, she drove from her home in Port Orange, near Daytona Beach, to Imperial Point Medical Center. The cancer that started in his lungs had spread to his liver.

She arranged for an ambulance to bring him to a hospice in Port Orange. His sister, Carolyn DeLucia, who also lives in Port Orange, was able to see him a final time.

Edna Sorcinelli Peim was at her son’s side when he died on May 6. He was 59.

Sorcinelli’s ashes were buried last week in a cemetery in West Haven, Conn., next to his father’s remains. A local memorial service is scheduled for noon June 5 at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Fort Lauderdale.

“I don’t know what happened to my son, I really don’t,” Edna Sorcinelli Peim said Friday. “It’s heartbreaking.” Once Sorcinelli had a family, a home and a job in Connecticut. He moved to South Florida in the late 1980s.

“He was a loved guy,” said Leonard Gallo, his childhood friend and now the police chief in East Haven, Conn. “He had no reason to be on the street, but for whatever reason he decided he was just going to remove himself from society and live this reclusive life. … I tell my officers all the time, someone may be disheveled on the streets and homeless, but that doesn’t make them not a human being. Behind every set of eyes, there’s a story.”

No one could save him

The homeless usually don’t get much attention when they die, unless they are the victims of a horrific crime. That was the case in Fort Lauderdale earlier this year when a savage beating spree left Norris Gaynor dead and two homeless men injured. Three teens have been charged in the attacks.

Most times, as with Sorcinelli, the homeless simply vanish from the streets, leaving the people who slipped them $5 bills or cups of coffee wondering whatever happened to a familiar face.

“He really fell apart at the end,” said Scott Russell, a former Fort Lauderdale police officer who works closely with the homeless. “In Mike’s case, he didn’t believe he had any mental illness, and he just would not accept help or treatment.”

In the end, no one could save him.

Not the mother who often came to town, drove around Federal Highway until she found him, then would put him up in a motel for a few days and beg him to come home with her.

“I’d always think, maybe this is the year,” Edna Sorcinelli Peim said. “But it never happened.”
Not the high-profile Fort Lauderdale defense attorney who knew Sorcinelli from high school in Connecticut and tried to help him when he met him on the streets of South Florida decades later.

“I must have given him 10 suits over the years,” said Fred Haddad, who grew up in Milford, Conn. “I did everything I could to help him. I’d buy him cigarettes, I’d give him money, I tried to get him jobs. But he was one of those guys who just wanted to be homeless.”

And not the small army of homeless advocates who tried to intervene.

“He was basically a loner,” said Richard Courtney, an advocate who used to be homeless himself. “You just couldn’t get him off the street.”

Broward County unveiled a 10-year plan to end homelessness last week, which is all well and good. But the sad fact remains there will always be some who don’t want help, and some too troubled to realize they need help.

“He’d stay in touch, call me sporadically,” said Gallo, the East Haven police chief. “Once, I sent him a couple hundred bucks for a one-way ticket to come back home. I should have sent him the ticket. … I wish I could have done more.”

A life unraveled

Michael Sorcinelli was born Feb. 10, 1947, in New Haven, two months premature. He spent his first weeks in an incubator.

He grew up in a tight-knit Italian family, the second of three children.

“He played hockey; he was a tremendous skater,” said Gallo. “He used to get up at 4 in the morning to go down to the rink. … Whatever he did, he did it to perfection. The way he dressed, the way he spoke, the way he wrote. No matter what he did, he’d put 100 percent into it.”

He spent three years in the Army, then returned to Connecticut and married his childhood sweetheart at 21. They had one child, Michael Jr.

He took some college courses, spent 14 years working for Miles Pharmaceuticals. He lost the job after a back injury, according to his mother, then sold insurance.

After a divorce, he moved to South Florida with a girlfriend in the late 1980s.

His mother, who lived in Miami at the time, said he had a nice apartment in Lauderhill and a good job as a word processor with the Ruden McClosky law firm.

Then his life unraveled. His girlfriend filed a domestic-violence complaint against him in 1991. His mother said he started acting strangely, but he refused to get help or believe anything was wrong. She said he was diagnosed with manic depression, but wouldn’t take medication. Nobody knows for sure when he started living on the streets, but his mother couldn’t find him after his father died in 1993. He missed the funeral.

In the early 1990s, he used to hang out in bars on Las Olas Boulevard, socialize with the lawyers he knew from his old job, and pretend he still worked.

“He used to stay in a rooming house. That’s why he’d always be clean, shaven, well-dressed,” said Haddad. “He’d walk the streets during the days, but still have someplace to go at night. Then over time, he started going downhill.”

His arrests on petty charges became more frequent, and he became a greater nuisance to businesses and residents. “He was really a nice guy, but he’d become agitated if you pressed him about being mentally ill,” said Russell, the former policeman. In 1999, his son died of illness at age 29. Sorcinelli didn’t go to the funeral.

“One time I took him out to lunch on my own time, and he opened up,” Russell said. “He’d get emotional about his son and family. It’s almost like he put himself in purgatory for not being there at the time of his son’s death.”

Last June, Sorcinelli was arrested in Davie and charged with battery on a law enforcement officer, his first felony charge.

He was declared mentally unfit to stand trial and spent three months in a state mental hospital, from September to December. He was released from jail in January and returned to the streets.

In late April he spent a few hours at Holy Cross Hospital, according to his mother, then spent a few days near the corner of Commercial Boulevard and Federal Highway. On April 24, the day his mother arrived in town, he was taken involuntarily to Imperial Point by a fire rescue unit.

During his last days on the street, his mother would check on him by calling a restaurant near the bench where he lay. She gave her credit card number and asked if they could bring him a meal.

“Is he a bum?” the manager asked.

“I said, `My dear, all those people out there are someone’s children, they all have a mother and father,'” Edna Sorcinelli Peim said through tears Friday. “`You don’t know what’s happened in their lives and how they got that way.’ I think we all need to remember that. I think we all need to treat the homeless a little better.”