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Compassionate Tarpon Springs officer lends hand to homeless

Lynette Thomas, outreach services coordinator at the Shepherd Center, talks with Tarpon Springs Officer Jose Yourgules, who connects homeless people with support if they want it.
Lynette Thomas, outreach services coordinator at the Shepherd Center, talks with Tarpon Springs Officer Jose Yourgules, who connects homeless people with support if they want it.
Published Mar. 16, 2013

TARPON SPRINGS — On a mostly hidden wooded trail off N Pinellas Avenue, Officer Jose Yourgules stops to greet a homeless man, flashing a friendly smile.

Yourgules, 46, Tarpon Springs' homeless outreach officer, follows the path until he reaches a clearing with six tents, open flaps exposing crumpled blankets and pillows. On the ground are beer cans, bottled water, scissors, soap, pots and pans.

He approaches Mary Lowery, 52, a petite woman in a sweatshirt and backward baseball cap. She invites Yourgules to talk to her as she lounges in a lawn chair by a small campfire.

They begin a familiar conversation: She's so disoriented, she can't get to the centers that give out free food, let alone find her way to a doctor. She's out of psychiatric drugs to control her bipolar disorder and anxiety. Her boyfriend hits her and has moved to the neighboring tent. She's addicted to alcohol.

"You know you don't have to stay out here, right? You can go to a shelter," Yourgules says.

"I'm not going to any shelter," Lowery says, adding that she has been banned anyway for causing trouble.

"Maybe you should go somewhere else. Start fresh?" he says.

"It's not an option. I choose to stay out here," she says in a rising voice.

"You think you could do better if you weren't drinking?" he asks. "Let us help you stop drinking."

"You gotta get off that," she replies. "That's not going to happen."

Yourgules keeps his voice level and friendly. But inwardly, he is frustrated.

His job is to keep tabs on the 40 or so homeless people who live in Tarpon Springs. It's a watchdog role with a humanitarian component. He helps when he can, but often his hands are tied.

"We can't force people to do things," he said. "We can't force them to go to their medical appointments."

• • •

Yourgules and a social worker deliver medicine to the people in Tarpon Springs' three homeless camps — all on the outskirts of town — and connect them with food kitchens and groups that offer mental health and substance abuse services. He uses his police car to drive people to Pinellas Safe Harbor or Pinellas Hope, shelters in mid Pinellas.

Since Yourgules began homeless outreach three years ago, he has helped 200 people get to shelters, he said. Most have been single adults. He has never been unable to find shelter for someone who wants it.

Clearwater, Pinellas Park, Lealman and St. Petersburg have similar homeless outreach teams. Those in St. Petersburg and Clearwater come across more families than other areas and struggle to place them in the few family shelters available, he said.

In many ways, Tarpon Springs makes being homeless as good as it can be.

Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater have installed a series of get-tough-on-homeless laws in recent years, in some cases criminalizing panhandling and sleeping outside.

At the suggestion of hired homelessness consultant Robert Marbut, last year Clearwater slashed social services, discouraged soup kitchens, locked public restrooms and removed water hoses in areas frequented by homeless people.

Yourgules has few of those types of ordinances to adhere to. Rather, the retired Navy veteran focuses on building ties with places like the Shepherd Center, the Salvation Army and Grace Chapel, which offer food and services for homeless people.

"This is a homeless-friendly town," Yourgules said. "We feed them, we probably enable them to some extent, and we don't harass them that much."

On Mondays, he visits homeless camps with social worker Karen Main, who is from the community outreach group Directions for Living.

The rest of the week, Yourgules has the responsibilities of a regular officer. But he's never off homeless duty. He's the go-to officer if a homeless person breaks the law, and he'll always make time to drive someone to a shelter.

Yourgules, who has traveled to 60 countries and seen his share of poverty, is contemplative about the inherent dilemmas involved in his work.

At what point does compassion enable dangerous, alcoholic behavior? How do you balance the rights of homeless people to live their own lives with the rights of business owners who worry that panhandlers will scare off customers?

He rolls his eyes when he talks about people who call the police to complain about the homeless folks they can see from their cars through the thick brush of Pinellas County property.

"If someone complains, the police have to respond, even if we don't want to."

On the other hand, he said, some homeless people can be a nuisance, publicly drinking alcohol or urinating on the street, both against the law. That offends people who take pride in Tarpon Springs and want it to be clean and welcoming, he said.

Put bluntly: "People have the right to do what they want, but they also have the right to walk through the streets and not walk through urine."

In many ways, homeless outreach is a thankless job. He has no way to track people who leave the shelters or migrate to other tent cities. Once in a while, he'll hear through the grapevine about where someone is or what that person is doing.

He cites one success story.

"There was a gentleman homeless in Indian Rocks Beach," he said. "Lives in public housing now, drawing disability. House, bed, wheelchair. For two years he lived with no help, and now he's got help. That's about as good as it gets."

Contact Brittany Alana Davis at bdavis@tampabay.com or (850) 323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.

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