Pete Cormier: He tells his parents he's staying with friends

Published February 18, 2007

ST. PETE BEACH - Under the branches of a mangrove, the soft sand is like a mattress for Pete Cormier as he snuggles in a Coleman sleeping bag.

He wakes up shortly after 7 a.m. A pulsating sprinkler usually serves as a wet alarm clock at 5 a.m. On this day, it fails to stir him.

All about location

Cormier, a 53-year-old former construction worker, is one of a few dozen homeless people in St. Pete Beach. Since November, home for Cormier has been living under mangroves on the south end of Pass-a-Grille.

Living on the street isn't so rough if you know how to do it, he says. As with real estate, it all comes down to location.

In St. Pete Beach, residents often offer him unsolicited help. A week ago, a Pass-a-Grille hippie gave him a sleeping bag. Another resident offered to fix the punctured tire on his bicycle. And sometimes local teenagers bring him food.

"Pete does good out here," said Tom Snedden, a crab fisherman who lives on a friend's boat in Pass-a-Grille and usually gives Cormier a cigarette or two when he sees him. "This guy doesn't ask anyone for anything."

The friendliness of St. Pete Beach is a stark contrast to St. Petersburg, where Cormier said he has been threatened a few times by some of the homeless people who live in the city's parks or alleys.

"There is no way in hell I would ever stay in St. Petersburg," he said. "Out here, as long as you don't start any problems, no one starts any problems with you."

St. Pete Beach police Chief David Romine said that although Cormier has been arrested several times for violating open-container laws and trespassing on private property, few residents have complained about him.

"It is not illegal to be homeless," Romine said.

In search of food

Cormier wraps up the first leg of his daily journey along Gulf Boulevard from Pass-a-Grille to the Sweetbay Supermarket on Blind Pass Road, occasionally stopping to chat or to pick up a discarded cigarette butt.

Sitting across the street from the back of the grocery, he waits for a milk delivery man to enter the store. Once he does, Cormier drags a stack of soda crates to the trash bin in search of breakfast.

Just as he pulls out a roasted chicken still in its plastic container, the store manager appears at the delivery entrance.

"Put that back and get out of here," he yells.

Cormier swears as he returns the chicken. He quickly starts walking back to Pass-a-Grille.

History of homelessness

Cormier has been homeless for most of his 53 years.

His parents, a Chippewa couple from Great Falls, Mont., put him up for adoption shortly after he was born. His adoptive parents eventually brought him to St. Petersburg, where he grew up in a comfortable home on a street lined with barns.

When he was about 16, his father kicked him out after he was caught drinking and throwing eggs at a neighbor's car on Halloween.

He lived in a neighbor's barn for a month until his mother talked him into coming home. Months later, he was expelled from Lakewood High School after he was caught with marijuana. His father kicked him out again.

Cormier dropped out of school and worked odd jobs, but nothing stuck. For the next 35 years, nothing would. He hitchhiked across the United States twice and crashed at his brother's place whenever he was in a bind. His brother died in 2005 and left him some money. Cormier survived on that until it ran out in November. That's when he moved to Pass-a-Grille, eventually making his home in a bush near the sidewalk.

He tells his parents, now in their 80s, that he is staying with friends.

"At their age, I don't want to bother them," he explained. "I would have to be in a ditch in the side of the road to ask my dad for a penny."

Waiting for a break

It's nearly noon, and Cormier still hasn't had anything to eat. He is angry at the Sweetbay manager and still wants his chicken, especially since he saw some other goodies in the trash bin. "I'll go back later," he says. "There was some beer bottles in there, Corona, Heineken, Budweiser. They throw them out if one of the bottles in the six-pack breaks."

If he could get his bicycle fixed, he would find a job and rent a cheap hotel room. He figures it's a matter of waiting for things to fall in place.

"I've worked all of my life, and this is just one of the times when I don't," he said.

Times photographer Scott Keeler contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.