SAN JOSE -- Workers cleared 60 tons of trash and ousted 150 occupants from five of the city's estimated 60 homeless camps, located mostly along creeks and a river. But only weeks after an expensive summer pilot program ended, the homeless are finding their way back and the trash is building up again.

From late May to late August, the city and crews from the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the San Jose Conservation Corps cleaned out homeless camps while meticulously documenting the time and personnel required to provide help as well as sort and catalog all the belongings. The goal: develop a longer-term collaborative strategy to provide outreach to homeless, offer them housing options, store their belongings and reduce litter in and along waterways -- and determine the overall cost.

The $700,000 effort helped 30 of about 150 people living in the camps move into motels or shelters where they will have access to social workers while awaiting more permanent housing.

And residents who had been outraged over months of trash piling up near their homes, as well as what they called hazardous camp fires and criminal activity linked to the camps, were relieved to be rid of the worry and headache.

"There was enormous improvement,'' said Petie Walker, whose condo complex borders Kelley Park, near Coyote Creek, which had attracted enough homeless that residents were afraid to enter the park. Since park rangers continue to stop by, few homeless have returned, and she and others are enjoying the park again.

But in other areas, homeless people have almost immediately returned to the same camps, or moved on to create others where new piles of trash -- along with discarded blankets, clothing, and pieces of furniture -- once again are multiplying, according to a recent city memo.

And one of the more controversial aspects of the cleanup -- reinstituting a method to catalog and temporarily store the belongings of the homeless -- has occurred, though the results are hard to judge. Not a single homeless person has retrieved any of their possessions, according to the joint memo by San Jose's director of Housing and director of Environmental Services.

"What we learned over the summer with Phase One is that we are meeting the legal requirements of storing property, and that we have an efficient process for that, but we also learned that continuing to do cleanups alone will not meet the community's goals or our environmental goals,'' said Environmental Services Director Kerrie Romanow.

Just this week, Coyote Creek made Save the Bay's list of the Bay Area's top five trash hot spots because its trash level is so high it violates the U.S. Clean Water Act.

The only reason one of the five homeless camps -- near a freeway underpass close to Communications Hill -- hasn't been resettled is because the city spent $40,000 to install a specially designed fence to prevent that from happening, the memo said.

"It's a chronic problem,'' said Mayor Chuck Reed. "We need to put people into housing so they can stabilize their lives and benefit from services, and we know that the permanent solution takes money.''

But the cash-strapped city doesn't have enough money to put every homeless person into permanent housing.

At least for the next few months, Reed said, it appears that frequent cleanups can prevent the camps from growing too big or too entrenched with permanent structures. The ongoing effort will continue to require staffing by police and park rangers, he acknowledged, and that's a cost both he and the council will have to wrestle with as the city faces a $22.5 million budget deficit in the next fiscal year.

The city intends to continue with the cleanups for the rest of the year, focusing on four small camps and two large camps. And both Romanow and Housing Director Leslye Corsiglia said the city will use insights it gathered from the pilot program when clearing future homeless sites.

They intend to share those observations with the City Council during a study session in October to discuss overall strategy to prevent re-encampments and funding needs and possible funding sources. A joint session also is scheduled in December with the Santa Clara Valley Water District board.

"We definitely learned some things that will help us move forward,'' said Corsiglia, who said the cleanups must continue to discourage the camps and the massive amounts of trash they generate. The issue prompted dozens of exasperated residents in May to pack a Water District board meeting, where they unloaded on board members with angry and fearful tales of living next to growing homeless camps.

Corsiglia said that perhaps the most important lesson learned was the need to contact the homeless several weeks, even months, before the cleanups begin.

"We're more successful if we do more outreach ahead of the cleanups,'' said Corsiglia, noting that many homeless people live outside because they're mentally ill, or afraid, or intolerant of the rules imposed by shelters.

The earlier that social workers were able to begin talking to the camp residents about housing options, the more willing some were to try a different setting, said Corsiglia.

And changing the camp areas to make them less desirable places to live, by installing fencing, and future plans to use flood lights, as well as cutting back vegetation -- also are worthwhile, though those strategies will require time and money to implement.

"It's a human tragedy, and a community and neighborhood concern -- and also a big environmental issue,'' said Corsiglia. "We have to figure it out.''

The controversy over homeless camps came to a head earlier this year when San Jose abruptly stopped its coordinated and expensive -- $235,000 in shared annual costs -- cleanup effort with the water district.

That happened after San Jose's Independent Police Auditor LaDoris Cordell told city officials they could face a potentially huge legal liability if they continued to discard homeless people's personal property during the cleanups.

Only last week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city of Los Angeles could not randomly seize and destroy the personal property that homeless temporarily leave on city streets.

While Cordell acknowledged the process to sort, tag and store the belongings may be tedious, and that it might appear to be a wasted effort since none of the homeless had reportedly claimed any of their belongings, she emphasized that the city was doing right by following the law.

Contact Tracy Seipel at 408 275-0140.

Where the approximately $700,000 to fund five camps cleanups, homeless outreach, housing and social service options, and property storage came from:
$432,000 in federal funds to house 40 homeless residents for up to one year; funding remains for 10 more homeless people
$160,00 from Recycle Plus late fee revenues
$68,000 from federal grants, San Jose Housing Trust Fund, Santa Clara Valley Water District
$40,000: San Jose general fund to install barriers to deter re-encampment at Communications Hill
Source: City of San Jose

Phase One homeless camp clean-up locations and number of homeless initially removed:
Communications Hill: 3 to 6 residents
Coyote Creek and Selma Olinder Park: 12 residents
Guadalupe River and Julian Street: 12 residents
Coyote Creek near Kelley Park: 25 residents
Tully Road at Coyote Creek: at least 90 residents
Source: City of San Jose