Randy Holcombe and Dee Armstrong live in tents in unincorporated Tarpon Springs.
TARPON SPRINGS – East of Alt. U.S. 19, in unincorporated Tarpon Springs, past trampled grass and branches covered in small red berries, a plot of land is deserted except for tents and clothing torn by weather. Pots and pans licked clean by animals. Gatorade and Listerine bottles drained by residents long gone.
Empty orange pill bottles spill over the ground and bottles of cooking wine litter the piles of worn fabric. You can buy cooking wine with an EBT card, and the alcohol content is just high enough to keep you drunk.
There’s a silence that echoes among the trees, a silence that seems out of place, because it is. A year ago, the land was crowded with a makeshift camp for the homeless. After the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department stepped in, the residents scattered. Now, all that’s left is what they couldn’t sell for cash.
According to the 2013 point-in-time count by Pinellas County, 6,593 homeless people resided in the county, 2,495 were children. The report is compiled by volunteers who distribute surveys to the homeless across the 280 square miles of Pinellas County, including questions about situations that led to homelessness, age, gender, race, veteran status and family structure. The survey was done on Jan. 24, 2013 about where the individuals had slept the night of Jan. 23.
The report separates findings into three distinct categories of homeless people:
• Transitionally homeless: those who have become homeless due to an incident such as divorce, job loss or fire
• Episodically homeless: those who move in and out of homelessness for short periods of time
• Chronically homeless: those who become homeless and stay that way for extended periods of time
In areas located in wooded or other remote areas where there are too many safety concerns to dispatch volunteers, law enforcement officers are sent to count the homeless. Of 438 counted on Jan. 23, 28 people were counted in Tarpon Springs, 23 male and five female.
The Tarpon Springs Police Department and the Homeless Outreach Project Endeavor, led by Officer Jose Yourgules, want to stop those numbers from rising.
Since 2010, the Homeless Outreach Project has helped more than 200 homeless adults find temporary housing. Many go to Pinellas Safe Harbor in Clearwater, Yourgules said. Others go to Pinellas Hope in Clearwater. Recently, he’s been taking people to Turning Point, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in St. Petersburg.
“I’ve seen people who have sold their grandma’s 50-year-old rings for $10 worth of pills,” Yourgules said. “Some of the homeless people I deal with wouldn’t make it without rehab.”
Beyond connecting homeless people with social services, the Homeless Outreach Project works within the Tarpon Springs community to find other solutions.
“You can’t arrest your way out of a homeless problem,” Police Chief Robert Kochen said at the Nov. 19 City Commission meeting, where he updated the commission on the success of the outreach program.
So instead, the Tarpon Springs Police Department uses patrols in business districts and open areas where homeless people are known to congregate, including Craig Park and the Tarpon Springs Public Library. A crime prevention officer works with businesses on a trespass warning program that advises business owners to call the police department if they suspect a homeless person – or anyone, for that matter – is trespassing on private property. When necessary, Yourgules and his officers use the Marchman Act, a state law that allows family members to obtain help for someone unwilling to voluntarily seek substance abuse services, or the Florida Mental Health Act, commonly known as the Baker Act, which allows involuntary institutionalization and examination.
In 2010, the first year of the program, Yourgules took 52 Tarpon Springs residents to homeless shelters. The next year, he helped 82 people. Last year, 57. This year, Yourgules has taken over 30 people off the streets. But the drop in statistics isn’t because Yourgules isn’t doing his job, or because of fewer homeless people. It’s because he did his job too well.
“Before there was a program, there were a lot of homeless people in the area. It was a goldmine,” Yourgules said. “Now, you have to go digging. You have to sell the program and convince them there’s something better than leaning against a tree.”
Not everyone looks for help though. Some don’t like the rules they’d have to follow at a homeless shelter or in rehab. No drugs. No alcohol. Forced interaction with others.
“They’d rather lie in the bushes than have food, showers, laundry,” he said. “And those are the ones that people complain about.”
At St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Pastor Curt Snare said he sees his share of homeless people, and he does what he can to help.
“If we can keep people off the streets, that’s the best case scenario,” Snare said. “There’s not a day in Tarpon Springs where you can’t get food.”
On Mondays, a woman cuts hair at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. On Thursdays, Snare and his volunteers serve lunch and dinners. The Shepherd Center provides clothes, even professional wear for interviews.
“We have people from the VA, pro bono legal people, people from other churches,” Snare said. “Folks come from all around to help.”
Then there are those who don’t want help. Those who like life without structure, both literal and figurative.
Dee Armstrong and Randy Holcombe live in a camp across from the deserted land, along with Holcombe’s brother and three other people. They’ve been in the area for years, Holcombe for more than 13 years. But they’ve never taken Yourgules up on an offer for help.
“We don’t believe they’re going to help,” Holcombe said. “His project is for the hopeless, not the homeless.”
Holcombe wanted that distinction made clear: he could go to a shelter and find housing, but he doesn’t want to. He could let Yourgules take him to Clearwater for a shower and laundry and hot food. But he washes his clothes in boiled water and makes homemade spaghetti sauce. They have enough food to feed Armstrong’s dog, a part bulldog named Busta.
And in the middle of the six tents, makeshift buffet lines boasts Folgers coffee and Chinese takeout, two-liter Pepsi bottles and Campbell’s Chunky soup.
The Homeless Outreach Program is great for people who need it, Holcombe said. But not for him.
Across the street, near the pathway to the camp, Yourgules pointed out a crumpled can of Cherry Coke.
“Make sure you get the can, Dee,” he said.
Armstrong hadn’t dropped the can, but that wouldn’t stop her for selling it back to a recycling center.