ANDERSON — In late August, a group of more than 60 people recruited by White River Watchers spent a day picking up trash in and along White River near Anderson’s downtown.

Volunteers hauled at least 25 tarps, several waterlogged sleeping bags, about half a dozen tents and several recliners from the water, according to Lapel resident Alan Kilburn, a White River Watchers member who helped with the cleanup. The debris, he added, nearly filled an industrial-sized dumpster.

Less than two months later, those efforts are barely noticeable.

At a site beneath a bridge on Main Street, clothing, blankets and other personal belongings lie draped over couches and recliners near worn mattresses. From the riverbank, a chair could be seen floating in the water.

The encampment inhabited by a group of homeless people is one of several that have existed in the area for years, according to business owners and local environmental advocacy groups.

“It’s gotten worse and worse,” Kilburn said. “Several years ago, they used to have state facilities where people would live — county homes and things like that. They did away with them, and now we have this. Something has to be done.”

The issue has frustrated advocates for the homeless, conservation groups and city officials from multiple administrations who acknowledge that the presence of the campsites creates safety hazards and detracts from recent improvements made to nearby hiking and bike trails.

“It compromises people’s ability to enjoy the river and the river walk,” said Rob Spaulding, executive director of the Christian Center.

Members of White River Watchers are discussing various approaches to address the problem with the city. Among them is creating a task force that would work with local law enforcement and social service agencies to route some inhabitants of the encampments to places with resources to help those with problems including mental health and substance abuse.

The idea is a valid one, some officials said, but it failed to gain traction a few years ago when a committee was formed to look at the issue.

“What it’s going to take is the city basically supporting those groups that are trying to do the right thing to try and clean things up,” said City Council member Jennifer Culp. “If it’s private property, then whoever owns that property needs to say, ‘Hey, get off my property.’”

The city has no ordinance regulating homeless settlements, and officials believe it would be difficult to put one in place that would carry sufficient legal weight to make it effective.

“One of the problems is because of the freedoms that we all have, there are only certain restrictions that you can put in place legally,” said Mayor Thomas Broderick Jr. “Being poor, being homeless isn’t against the law.”

Kim Rogers-Hatfield, who is secretary of White River Watchers and director of engagement for Heart of Indiana United Way, said educating residents about the complexities of the problem is a daunting task.

“Homelessness in general is a difficult issue,” she said. “It’s not illegal to be homeless, but there needs to be, I think, more understanding from the community that we need to actually find places for these people rather than continuing to have them live in these areas.”

Spaulding said the Christian Center, which is less than three blocks from one of the encampments, and other agencies can only do so much. Short of physically removing people from the locations, he said, there are few viable options.

“If somebody doesn’t want to get into housing, then they’re just going to stay along the river,” he said. “The problem is, everybody’s just kind of OK with it. It is not OK. We have to be, as a community, focused on moving these people out of homelessness. I’m not sure that the whole community understands that.”

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