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CART WARS

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You may have seen the flyers around town, and wondered what they were all about:

One Accessible Storage Facility
In the Entire City

For Homeless People to Use


Up to 14,000 Homeless People with Personal Property


Do you think there’s a problem?

That’s if you’re lucky—that is, lucky enough to have a home to call your own, despite San Francisco’s increasingly high cost of living and low provision of economic opportunity to those at the margins.

If you’re less lucky, you had no need to wonder, because you’re already all too keenly aware of just how hard it can be to hang on to your personal possessions when they’re pretty much all you’ve got left. Basically, it’s like this: When you’ve already lost the roof over your head that would have sheltered your belongings from the elements, with it goes the door that would have locked out another kind of undesirable element—the predatory types who are always looking to pick up a few bucks by picking up a few things… that belong to someone else.

And if your luck is pretty much out, you’re much more concerned about the implications of another flyer making the rounds of the “known homeless haunts” these days. In fact, if you happen to be one of SF’s many homeless people whose worldly goods are currently ensconced for safekeeping in a shopping cart, the odds are fast increasing that any recent interaction you might have had with City cops included their issuing you your very own copy of a warning memo.

Yes, it’s true. Despite the virtual media love fest surrounding recent mayoral efforts on the SF homelessness front (Survey Shows Homeless Down 28%, Bay City News, February 14; Fewer Homeless on Streets of San Francisco. SF Chronicle, February 15, 2005; HOPE FOR THE HOMELESS: Huge Volunteer Turnout, New Housing Are Latest Signs of Progress in S.F., SF Chronicle, February 18, 2005), all is not sweetness and light on the San Francisco homelessness front.

No News is Flawed News

Unfortunately, one result of all the ink and airplay that’s been devoted to covering the up-side of San Francisco’s recent homelessness policy shift toward a “Housing First” model (moving profiles of people whose struggles with life on the streets now appear to have culminated in personal redemption through, among other assorted services, their City-assisted ascension to the status of apartment dweller) has been a near media blackout on coverage of a concurrent development at least equally newsworthy—if nowhere near as “warm and fuzzy.”

The fact is that though Newsom clearly stated that City policy on homelessness was charting a new course toward “Housing First”—an approach enthusiastically endorsed by everyone from President Bush’s homelessness point person Phil Mangano to the Coalition and our constituency—it has not, as yet, abandoned the old, which invokes the power of the criminal justice system. What this means, unfortunately, is that all those happy stories on homelessness lately are playing against a backdrop of continuing, and at least in the case detailed in this article (the fraught issue of homeless people’s use of shopping carts) accelerating, use of punitive measures that effectively make it a crime to be homeless.

In issue after issue, STREET SHEET has chronicled the negative impact of citing homeless people for so-called “Quality of Life” offenses, which criminalize homeless people’s most basic acts of survival. We’ve explained how the harm created by these punitive tactics ends up extending far beyond the homeless community, ultimately effecting every San Francisco resident regardless of life circumstance: when cities look to the criminal justice system for help with homelessness, the results are costly in more ways than one; funding for valued City services drops and tension on the street rises.

It seems so clear. Yet still the prosecution continues, so here we go again with the attempt to increase understanding about homelessness. Let’s start w/another exercise in empathy. Here’s the scenario:

You’ve got a low-paying job that barely covers the rent for your cheap room, let alone your other costs. It’s tough, but you’re young and optimistic and tell yourself your luck is about to change for the better.

It turns out that you were half right: Your luck DOES change: your employer suddenly skips town just before payday, leaving you not only unemployed, but also short on rent money. In short order, you find yourself on the street, destitute and damned discouraged.

Determined not to let this setback get the better of you, you dig down deep, summon up that youthful optimism, and rally yourself to the task at hand: securing new employment. You manage that makeshift shower surreptitiously in a sink at the Main Library, assemble your best street-found clothing ensemble, stash the rest of your stuff somewhere you can only hope it will stay, make it to the address you got from the employment board as interviewing on time, do your best when it’s your turn to be interviewed. For the next week, you spend a couple of hours per day hanging out by the payphone whose number you put on the application as your home number, hoping against hope that it will ring and put you back on the road toward the kind of life in which personal responsibility leads to a regular roof over your head.

Sound challenging? Then try all of that PLUS having to explain during your job interview that a criminal record does not necessarily mean that you’re untrustworthy or make you in any way a bad employment prospect. What are your options? Put aside your effort to keep your life difficulties to yourself, and explain to the nice man (whom you hope to hell will hire you and give you a paycheck before you again find yourself in an orange suit and behind bars, this time for defaulting on that still outstanding fine) that you were briefly down on your luck and simply “had nowhere else to go,” nudge, nudge, wink, wink, hoping for a glimmer of understanding? Say that your alleged “offense” was not in any sense a crime as one normally would think of them… “It’s not like I’m an axe murderer or a career embezzler or anything?” Or figure that the die is cast and the only career path on your horizon becomes that of career criminal?

The foregoing represents a failed attempt to find the lighter side of a dark picture. There simply is NO up side to this policy: Criminalizing people for the act of conducting their lives on the street, when they lack any alternative, is harmful to all concerned. Moreover, it represents an unconscionable misapplication of human and monetary resources that could be used to further positive policies, such as the provision of housing, health care, education, and a host of supportive services.

Return to the Planet of the
Shopping Cart Wars

They seem so ordinary, so everyday… insignificant… innocuous. What could possible be problematic—let alone prosecutable—about shopping carts, those handy checkout stand staples? (True, there DO seem to be a disproportionate number with faulty steering and an irritating tendency to swerve abruptly sideways or initiate a circling pattern when pushed straight front, but that’s strictly a private sector kind of problem.)

Within the context of homelessness, though, shopping carts are easily accessible, relatively low-maintenance, offer a range of economic functionality, and morph readily from mobile storage unit by day to makeshift shelter at night. For politicians, on the other hand, shopping carts are simply eyesores that can cause a nasty black eye if you pick your fight wrong.

Symbolically speaking though, shopping carts come with their own baggage—especially in San Francisco, where the issue first excited public notice two mayors and a little over ten years ago. Briefly, the shopping cart war chronology is as follows:

1994:

In statement to the media, then-Mayor Jordan declares war on SF’s shopping cart users, ordering their arrest by the SFPD not on the (admittedly valid when you come right down to it) grounds of theft or possession of stolen property, but rather on the basis of his stated belief that “armed criminals posing as homeless people” were using shopping carts to transport weapons. Public response is immediate and universally opposed; some fearing civil rights abuses; others finding the entire concept ludicrous in the extreme. Police response is imperceptible (that is, no arrests are made in this matter).

1999:

Mayor Brown’s much-vaunted political savvy seemingly goes on sabbatical as he, in turn, declares San Francisco unsafe for homeless people wielding shopping carts as storage. Although avoiding the absurdity of Jordan’s rationale for prosecution, Brown nudges into the public ridicule zone by outdoing his predecessor on another front—upping the legal ante by calling for those in possession of carts not only to be arrested, but also to be charged with a felony instead of a misdemeanor. (Note: In California, if you are convicted of a felony, you lose the right to vote in public elections until such time as you successfully complete probation.)

The Board of Supervisors spawns a “Shopping Cart Task Force to assess the situation, and the Coalition conducts a survey on shopping cart use, in the process identifying the necessity of creating a City-run storage space that homeless people could use to store their belongings and validating the utility of shopping carts, especially for elderly, frail, or disabled homeless people, as well as those who make what money they have from recycling.

In an attempt to demonstrate a positive alternative to Brown’s legal crackdown, the Coalition and POOR Magazine hold a joint press conference on the steps of City Hall at which they present five homeless people with “free shopping carts.” These prototypes sport distinctive black paint and warning signs prohibiting their seizure by non-homeless people.

2000:

The City opens a free storage facility at 150 Otis, a building already in use as a temporary homeless shelter. Although City employees continue to report a Brown Administration desire to rid the streets of “the shopping cart blight,” this storage facility gets initial good marks from shopping cart users and other homeless people alike.

2005:

Yet again, the dread specter of a crackdown on homeless people in possession of shopping carts not technically speaking their own looms menacingly over the City.

On March 3rd, the COH will again hold a press conference on the steps of City Hall to decry the continuing criminalization of homeless people in San Francisco and suggest positive policy alternatives. Please come and show your support.

Let’s face it: The continuing criminalization of homelessness is an absurdist nightmare from which our City needs to wake up.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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