Hidden homeless: Columbus continues to clean up makeshift camps around city

Plastic bottles, cans and other debris were left behind when a campsite was dismantled near the river in Columbus.

One of the first calls came in last summer.

A Columbus farmer noticed a tent set up in his field near the east-side Walmart in Columbus. Fearing for the camper’s safety, the farmer called city officials to make them aware of the individual’s location.

City code enforcement officer Fred Barnett and local police officers visited the makeshift camp site and learned the site had been built by a homeless man.

Barnett said he gave the individual a reasonable period of time to collect his items and leave the site, giving him options to receive help from local organizations.

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Since that first call, 33 other similar encampments cluttered with scrap metal, propane tanks, garbage, wood, bicycles and other items have been discovered and dismantled.

“It is a zoning issue,” Barnett said. “With inside the city limits of Columbus, there is no property that is designated for camping. That is both in public property and private property. For someone just to start camping, they can’t do it.”

But as city officials clean up one camp location, individuals tend to migrate to another location that must also be cleaned up. The camp sites are set up all over Columbus in places not meant for human habitation — under bridges, in the woods, along the riverbanks and in fields.

Beyond zoning, city officials are also concerned with the health of these individuals and those who attempting to live outdoors in nearby communities.

Conditions in homeless encampments can be dangerous to health, according to the Arizona State University Center for Problem-Oriented Policing. The center says garbage in these areas attracts rodents and other vermin, food cannot be safely stored, and dishes cannot be washed properly, which facilitates the spread of food-borne diseases.

In outdoor temporary encampments, poor hygiene contributes to dental and skin problems. Other environmental hazards, such as batteries and fuels, are used for heating and cooking.

Many if not most of the encampments have no running water or bathroom facilities, although one camp did have a makeshift bathroom, using a bucket and a toilet seat.

Investigating complaints

The next call about a homeless encampment came from concerns about a number of people living under the bridges on 25th Street near Burger King on National Road. Residents living in the area and walkers along the People Trail complained about the vagrants and number of homeless people living behind Burger King and under the nearby bridges.

Some individuals walking on the People Trail reported to city officials there were noxious smells in the area.

Barnett said about 10 people were residing under the bridge, specifically in the “cubby holes” under the base of the bridge between the concrete pillars.

“You won’t see them,” Barnett said. “How I get the information about the campsites are by residents, the police department, city garage and my own observation.”

Many sites are spotted during the fall and winter when the trees are bare, making tents more visible within the city limits.

When a camp site is discovered, Barnett must contact the police and the Columbus Department of Public Works for assistance in notifying the “resident” of the zoning laws and cleaning up the area.

Depending on the circumstances, Barnett typically gives the individual 72 hours to gather belongings and leave the site. If criminal activity is involved, however, immediate action is taken.

“I’ve gotta be reasonable,” Barnett said. “Some will move to another county. Some are from other counties and come into Bartholomew. A lot of times that’s because they have warrants against them in other counties.”

Barnett said less than 25% of situations have involved a warrant for an individual’s arrest, but it does happen.

Noblitt Park camps

The most recent situations involving homeless camps, Barnett said, came from complaints and concerns about homeless individuals living in Noblitt Park near the Columbus downtown area.

Nearby residents were complaining about thefts, including bicycles, weed eaters and other items, from the back of people’s pickup trucks.

“A lot of this was coming from people living (in campsites) in Noblitt Park,” Barnett said. He and Columbus police officers discovered two sites set up, one by a Jennings County woman and another by a Bartholomew County man. Both had pending warrants for their arrest.

When an individual abandons the site, Columbus sanitation workers are left to clean up the space, often times also clearing out brush to prevent future offenders from setting up camp.

Columbus sanitation foreman Keith Huff said 88.073 tons of trash has been collected from the 34 sites, costing the city at least $2,422 to dump it at the landfill. The landfill charges $27.50 a ton.

“Understand that this is a situation that everyone in the city is trying hard to resolve,” Barnett said. “We’re trying to show the right amount of empathy for these individuals to get them the help they need, but at the same time, we can’t let all of this garbage and rubbish lay around all over the city of Columbus. The action that I’m taking on this is to help resolve the issue of the garbage and rubbish and potentially reduce some crime.”

Referring to agencies

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop said the individuals who are setting up the camps are encouraged to seek help from local resources such as Brighter Days Housing emergency shelter and Love Chapel.

During a Sept. 20, 2018, town hall gathering on the Columbus east side, Lienhoop said the homeless issue in Columbus is greater than it used to be. Brighter Days houses 20 to 25 people a night, individuals who would probably be out on the streets without the shelter being in operation.

But he acknowledged that there are some homeless individuals in the city who are unwilling or unable to follow the emergency housing shelter’s rules and choose not to stay there.

“We encourage them to reach out to Brighter Days and we make other services available to them,” Lienhoop said. “We try to treat the people in these encampments with some compassion and a fair amount of concern for their safety, but they are doing something that we can’t tolerate and that is just setting up encampments inside city limits and unpopulated areas.”

Lienhoop said the situation has been with the city for a while, but has recently become more apparent as residents learn what to look for and have begun reporting the sites to city officials. He said he senses this is an issue that isn’t going to be resolved any time soon.

Columbus isn’t the only community dealing with these encampments.

Larger cities such as Los Angeles, California, are exploring ways to revamp how crews clean up homeless encampments in the community. A new plan laid out earlier this month by the L.A. sanitation bureau aims to reorganize and expand its cleanup teams to provide more regular and consistent attention to encampments.

Lienhoop said it’s a common issue of many cities and no one has a solution, yet.

“We try to help these people as best we can,” Lienhoop said. “We try to make it clear to them that we can’t allow them to camp out in public spaces. It’s an unfortunate situation we have to take care of.”

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To report a camp site within the city limits, call code enforcement officer Fred Barnett at 812-376-2593.

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Total sites cleaned up: 34

Total trash tonnage: 88.073 tons

Landfill cost per ton: $27.50

Total landfill cost: $2,422

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Bartholomew County Human Services Inc.

Address: 4355 E. County Road 600 N.; Columbus

Phone: 812-372-8407

Hours: Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. (closed from 12:30 p.m. to 1 p.m.)

Thrive Alliance

Address: 1531 13th St. Suite G900; Columbus

Phone: 866-644-6407

Hours: Monday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Brighter Days Housing

Address: 421 S Mapleton St.; Columbus

Phone: 812-344-4512

Hours: Daily, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Love Chapel

Address: 311 Center St.; Columbus

Phone: 812-372-9421

Hours: Monday – Saturday, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.