Salinas' director of public works says people should never mistake the city's pragmatism for a lack of compassion, particularly on an issue like early Thursday's cleanup of a homeless encampment.

"We do a homeless sweep three or four times a year, and it's the hardest thing I have to ask my people to do," said Gary Petersen, whose crews used shovels, rakes and a front-loader to remove belongings and debris in the city's Chinatown district at Soledad Street and Market Way. "I always make a point to be out there, personally, whenever we do it, and it's always a very difficult thing to watch. We actually care about these people a lot."

The homeless who take up residence in the alleys and open spaces in the Chinatown area were notified several weeks ago of the impending sweep, giving them time to relocate with their belongings, Petersen said.

He said the city works closely with the county Department of Human Services and nonprofit service providers to help the homeless find a new situation.

"It's a health issue and we have a responsibility to the community to keep the area safe and clean," Petersen said. "As I was standing there this morning, talking with members of the media, what struck me was how many rats were running from the area as our crews moved along.

"We understand that a lot of these people are going to move back in, but we found needles, human waste, rats and other unsanitary things that constitute a public health hazard."

Dennis Taylor can be reached at 646-4344 or dtaylor@montereyherald.com.