Giving LA street people shopping carts keeps injustice visible

Tom Boland (
Thu, 6 Aug 1998 19:49:26 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Los Angeles Times  COMMENTARY  August 4, 1998


     Homeless: Giving shopping carts to street people keeps
     them visible to a community that would rather ignore them.

     By Jeff Deitrich
     [Jeff Dietrich Is a Member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker,
     a Lay Catholic Organization.]

The caller was outraged. "It is criminally irresponsible and a pernicious
waste of money to give shopping carts to the homeless," he said, "and I
intend to hold you personally responsible if one of your carts is used in a
theft from my business."

It's OK for Catholic Worker, a lay Catholic organization that provides
services to the poor, to run a free soup kitchen. But giving out 100 free
shopping carts to the poor, as it did a few weeks ago, inspired
unprecedented anger and even violent reactions from the community. The
police have intimated that we are abetting criminal activity; numerous
irate and sometimes anonymous callers have castigated us for "trashing the
city," "degrading the homeless" and wasting resources; some members of the
business community have actually screamed angry epithets at us, saying that
we are providing the homeless with a "license for vagrancy."

On the one hand our action is a simple, human response to the anger we felt
at watching homeless people harassed and jailed for up to 30 days for the
mere crime of possessing a shopping cart. We wanted to prevent homeless
people from going to jail and give them what they needed to survive on the
streets by providing them with shopping carts, complete with written
statements giving our permission to use the carts--thereby eliminating all
legal impediments to such use.

On the other hand, though, it is a provocative action that flies in the
face of cherished beliefs held by most Americans. Nothing symbolizes more
graphically the desperation and degradation of homeless poverty than a
shopping cart. To give a shopping cart to a homeless person is an act of
complicity and codependency, if not outright criminal conspiracy. Rather
than reforming the poor or mainstreaming the poor, we are confirming the
status of their dead-end poverty.

But it is unconscionable for any social service agency to continue
fostering the illusion that it is still possible for the poor to aspire to
the American dream. Over the past several decades, our nation has
consistently eliminated the lifelines, stepladders and safety nets that
historically have made it possible for the poor in a complex industrial
society to transition out of poverty. Our collective parsimony has
precipitated the elimination of every social program from free higher
education to job training to low-cost housing. And now, with the
elimination of 80,000 people in July from the welfare rolls, we have we
have virtually slammed the door on the poor, creating a permanent homeless

We need to face the fact that these cuts are leading to an increase in the
homeless population, which is aesthetically unpleasant, bad for business
and has a chilling effect on tourism. It has become the responsibility of
the police to ensure that the public never need encounter the odious
consequences of its own hardheartedness.

In San Francisco, for example, it is illegal to serve food to homeless
people in the downtown area. In Seattle, it is illegal to even sit in
certain areas of the city. And in Orlando, Fla., street beggars will be
arrested unless they possess a city issued license to beg.

Here in Los Angeles, the police zealously enforce anti-camping,
anti-begging, anti-loitering as well as anti-shopping cart laws, thus
sanitizing public contact with the poor.

The real purpose of our free shopping carts is not simply to help the poor
or keep them out of jail, though it is definitely that. The real purpose is
to ensure that the poor, with the rolling emblem of their poverty and
suffering, will not be entirely invisible to the community.

We expect more angry phone calls in the coming weeks when we announce our
next distribution of 100 free shopping carts. But that's just part of the
process of breaking through the veil of public denial to expose and heal
the wounds of homelessness and poverty.


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