Newton Burr, left, organizes his belongings in a converted trash bin while… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
SAN JOSE — Everything in the warehouse mattered, at some point, to someone. A ceramic urn sprouting peacock feathers. A tool chest held together with duct tape. An oak table. A purple bike.
Separated out from piles of trash during homeless encampment sweeps, the items were bagged, tagged and inventoried. In the seven weeks since San Jose started photographing and storing such belongings, no one has come to claim them.
The city, faced with the specter of costly litigation, has embarked upon a difficult experiment — one that is playing out across California as fiscally strapped cities struggle to balance the health and safety of the general public with the property rights of growing ranks of homeless people.
Instead of shoveling the detritus into garbage trucks and hauling it away, workers here have begun salvaging uncontaminated items and holding them for 90 days. But the process has raised some tough questions: What is trash? What is a hazard? Who decides? Where do you store such things? How do you pay for it?
And if San Jose — with an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 homeless residents — is struggling for answers, how can Los Angeles manage with a homeless population nearly five times that size?
"We're learning as we go," said Cheryl Wessling, spokeswoman for the San Jose Environmental Services Department. "We're trying to address the human element, the environmental element, water quality issues. The tensions are tough."
Officials frustrated with health and safety hazards are cleaning out encampments in places as varied as the banks of San Jose's Guadalupe River, the sea caves along the Santa Cruz coast and the 50 dense blocks of Los Angeles' skid row. The number of laws banning camping, loitering and begging in public continues to grow.
Homeless advocates call it the "criminalization" of poverty. The solution, they say, is housing, not prohibitions on sleeping outdoors or sweeps that destroy people's belongings. An April report by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness said cities set themselves up for lawsuits when they take such measures.
In fact, Fresno settled a class-action lawsuit in 2008 for $2.3 million, brought on behalf of homeless residents who said city workers had bulldozed their property — including a disabled woman's wheelchair and a litter of 10 puppies — and thrown it out like rubbish.
The city also instituted procedures to protect such belongings during later sweeps. But 32 lawsuits have been filed against Fresno since March, all arguing that the Central Valley city has begun destroying people's property without adequate notice again. Officials have denied the charges.
In Los Angeles, a federal judge last year imposed restrictions on the removal of items left unattended on skid row sidewalks following complaints from homeless residents.
Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, head of San Jose's office of the independent police auditor, was well aware of Fresno's legal travails — and wasn't about to let the same conflict tear at her city.
Last fall, Cordell began receiving complaints that officers were acting as "enforcers" while cleaning crews scooped up birth certificates, prescription medications and sleeping bags along with trash from homeless encampments.
A former truck driver named Chester, who was living on the banks of Coyote Creek with his girlfriend, said he was the first to call.
Every Thursday, he said, cleaning crews would come by to clear out trash. And every Thursday, Chester and Christine would break camp and hide their belongings before the workers arrived.
Then, last July, the crews came on a Wednesday.
"It's just a feeling I can't describe, going over there and seeing everything, everything you had gone," said Chester, who requested that his last name not be used. "We lost our tent, four sleeping bags, a bunch of blankets, our food bins … our gas stove, two library books that I have to pay for now. ... I filed a complaint through the judge."
After hearing from others who lost critical belongings, Cordell asked the police chief if one of her staff members could accompany police on their next sweep.
The staffer photographed six hours of cleanup, images that showed encampments filled with belongings, all of which ended up in big white garbage trucks. It troubled Cordell so much that "I contacted the police chief, the city manager and I think the city attorney's office and said, 'Can you all come over and talk to me?'"
Cordell also dug up a long-forgotten, 1990 memo from the then-San Jose city attorney that outlined the proper treatment of belongings. The meeting resulted in the procedures San Jose reinstituted last spring.
Rather than simply posting notices 72 hours ahead of a sweep, the city has social service providers begin visiting targeted areas 30 days in advance to talk about food vouchers, housing opportunities and jobs.
Then city workers go out and decide what to save.