INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — You rarely see rats because they're sly and nocturnal, so if you do happen to catch a glimpse one and it's daytime, then whoa -- you've got rats.
Terry Miles caught a glimpse of three. In the space of 30 minutes.
It was 2 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, and he was strolling through his encampment on the banks of the White River in downtown Indianapolis.
Miles is homeless, as are the other men and women who live in makeshift tent/shack arrangements in the vicinity of the Morris Street Bridge.
"I've woke up and had (rats) crawling up my back," said Mike Rosser, who resides in a riverside lean-to, a stone's throw from Smoot's place. "If you sort of jerk up, they get off."
Homelessness is nothing new to the river bank. But serious rat infestations are a recent development, and a nasty one.
And an ironic one, too, because its cause, say homeless outreach workers and county health personnel, is a cadre of well-intentioned people who deliver food to the homeless on a daily basis. Professional advocates wish they would stop.
"We get a hot meal every night," said Alisha Smoot, an outgoing 26-year-old who acts as a sort of greeter at a riverside homeless encampment of maybe a dozen men and women.
She and the others can't eat it all.
Rats may be symbols of poverty, decay and disease, but they also signify a certain abundance, or at least that there's some extra food lying around.
"I've had them run across my legs in the middle of the night," Smoot told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/W80n7t ), making a face.
Rosser's long-time companion, Kim Cosper, was reminded of the time she woke up, opened her eyes and there, above her head, dangling nimbly on a bungee cord, was a rat.
"They can climb up walls, climb up bungee cords," Cosper said. "Rats are something!"
"Genius," proclaimed National Geographic several years ago after sizing up rats' physicality via a series of agility tests (sort of like the way NFL teams size up college football players). Conclusion: "Rats are finely tuned machines."
Kathy Albright, who runs her own housecleaning business and is an ardent Christian, is among the volunteers who serve hot meals every Sunday to the 50 or so homeless people living under a railroad bridge on Davidson Street.
"We are led by God to serve our homeless community," Albright said.
Professional advocates for the homeless wish volunteers wouldn't bring food — and not only because excess food attracts rats.
To-your-door food deliveries make life more comfortable for the homeless, make them less inclined to come into homeless shelters where professional counseling and other services are available to them, help that could improve their lives long-term.
Many so-called chronically homeless people, the ones who stay under bridges for years, suffer from mental illness, or substance abuse problems, or both, experts say.
"Our outreach workers spend years cultivating relationships with these people as they try to encourage them to come in and get services," said Michael Butler, director of programs and research for the Coalition for Homelessness Intervention and Prevention. Hot, to-your-door meals "can disrupt those relationships."
The disagreement has been ongoing at least since January 2010, when CHIP publicly asked the some three dozen freelance groups of good Samaritans to cease bringing blankets and tents to homeless camps.
They did not.
"We're not enabling by serving dinner one day a week," said Albright.
But other groups fill in to serve the other six.
Albright challenges the notion that living under a bridge is a condition to be mitigated. "Society tells us we need to have an apartment or a house," she said. "I've been working with the homeless eight years, and my way of thinking is: 'Who's to say they're wrong?'"
The gap between good Samaritan and outreach worker may be unbridgeable, but both sides can agree on at least one thing: rats are health hazards.
They bite, not often, but they can carry rat-bite fever, which is like the flu, and like the flu can be fatal.
Their feces and urine spread potentially fatal organisms like leptospira, hantavirus and salmonella.
Since last fall, Jack Clarke has been working to get rid of the rats. The rat population at Davidson Street camp is greatly diminished, Clarke observed the other day while poking around rat burrows with his "rat harborage probe," which technically is a 9 iron.
Clarke supervises the five-person anti-rodent squad for the Marion County Health Department. A Wabash College English major/religion minor inspired by Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty, Clarke has battled rats since 1972 — and mostly won. Forty-one years ago, he said, in some neighborhoods rats infested 40 percent of the houses. "Now it's 2 percent."
The other day Clarke looked over Davidson Street the way Sitting Bull might have looked over the Little Bighorn — with satisfaction. Bags of blue poison, an anti-coagulant called Contrac, he'd lain days earlier were untouched, evidence it had done its work. Deceased rats lay about. "I can't say this is totally rat-free," he said, "but we've knocked them down a lot."
A man in a tent who gave his name as Steven B. said: "I used to hear them at night behind my tent, basically running back and forth, but now it's quiet."
But that still leaves the camps along the White River, where some of the more independent-minded homeless people are wary of assistance offered by government workers. Many of them have dogs and cats and consider that an adequate rat defense.
A dog or cat may occasionally kill a rat ("Rocky caught two and ate them," Rosser said of his Rottweiler), but dogs and cats can't cope with a major rat infestation.
In fact, their presence could even make matters worse, because good Samaritans bring not just hot meals for the homeless but pet food for their animals.
Rosser and Cosper, who've lived on the river bank since 2007, are so familiar with the rats that plague them they can distinguish one from another — they've assigned them names, in one case multiple names. A particularly large rat is, to Cosper, "Grandpa Rat"; Rosser calls it "Old School."
One is named "Bald A(asterisk)(asterisk)," because its rear end lacks hair.
Rosser said he'd lately taken matters into his own hands. He said he retrieved "different chemicals" from nearby Dumpsters, mixed the chemicals with meat, figured the recipe was poisonous and laid it about for rats to consume.
He feels good about his war on rats. At least he hasn't seen "Bald" in a while.
He chalks up "Bald" as departed.
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com