root - Posted on 31 December 1969

Is San Francisco’s new free storage facility just a way for the "City" to get rid of shopping carts owned by homeless residents?

by Kaponda and Peter Flores

The lustrous glitter from the lattice of metal on wheels is a familiar view to anyone who has seen Tom McNally drive his cart on the roads of San Francisco. Tom's shopping cart is a vital resource, as it is usually his protection from vicious weather at night and a repository for the items he collects while working as a recyler.

While sitting on Second and Mission Streets and attentive to his earthly possessions in the shopping cart, Tom noted a writhen smile on the face of the police officer who approached him. A 46-year-old homeless person with an unattractive house on wheels, Tom had perceived this would be an unfriendly encounter.

"Hey! If you are not gone in five minutes, you and your damn shopping cart will end up in the garbage can."

When the storm subsided and Tom had regained his calm, he scrabbled to hasten himself from the perils of the hostile policeman. Tom stood up and prepared to find a place in San Francisco where civil rights were still regarded as the foundation on which humanity is built. As Tom pushed his cart, the policeman handed him a flyer, which promoted free storage for his personal property.

On June 15, 2000, Mayor Willie Brown's Office on Homelessness opened a free storage facility in a building also used as a temporary homeless shelter. George Smith, director, Office on Homelessness, conceived and coordinated the process of creating a space where homeless people like Tom McNally could store their personal property without fear of having it stolen or lost.

After its fourth week of operation, the free storage space at 150 Otis Street has become the topic of much discussion throughout the homeless community in San Francisco. My editor, Lisa Gray-Garcia, and I decided to examine the claims made by the director of the Office on Homelessness, George Smith. According to George Smith, the free storage facility was brought on line after many discussions with homeless people in San Francisco, all of whom said they needed a place in which to put their belongings. Smith has been quoted as saying, "We kept asking them [homeless people with shopping carts], 'what would you need to stop using a cart?'"

A community organization that champions the rights of the homeless, the Coalition on Homelessness has surveyed most of the people who use shopping carts and has determined through analysis of the surveys the needs of the shopping cart community. My editor and I were shocked to learn that The City did not tap into this vast supply of information before it opened the storage facility on June 15th. Neither was anyone from POOR Magazine contacted, another wealth of insight into the underpinnings of poverty. Since neither the Coalition on Homelessness, nor POOR Magazine was consulted, we began a to further scrutinize the intent of the creation of this storage facility.

During an interview with an employee of city government, who asked to remain anonymous, it was learned that "The City wants the shopping carts off the streets." This glaring wrinkle was consistent with warnings issued by the Civil Rights Project of the Coalition on Homelessness. The Coalitions' warnings came in the form of a flyer, stating, among other things, that:

The City will Take Your Shopping Cart, and may Bring Your Property to 150 Otis Street for Storage.

The Coalition went on to inform people of their civil rights against any attempt by The City to confiscate shopping carts by including the following language in the flyer:

If you must leave your property unattended, leave it neat and organized with a sign indicating you will be returning shortly. This may or may not stop the City from seizing your property.

If your shopping cart is marked as being owned by a store, even if you are with it, they can legally seize it. You do have a right to remove your property first. If the cart belongs to you, they do not have a right to take it if you are attending it.

If your property was confiscated by the City, you can check 150 Otis Street between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., Monday through Friday....

George Smith has gone on record as touting this project as a convenience for homeless people with shopping carts. According to a quote from George Smith, "One of my promises to them [homeless people with shopping carts] was that we would come up with a storage facility." He added that the storage facility will not be used to store the property from shopping carts confiscated by the Department of Public Works. However, he stated that this project will not prevent his office from looking in the future at other ways of reducing the use of shopping carts. In view of all the conflicting information my editor and I had discovered while investigating this issue, I decided to contact George Smith to ascertain from him the true intent of this project.

I asked Smith if he intended to develop this project gradually so that it would be well established before the apparent purpose of confiscating shopping carts would be realized? He replied by stating that, "The City has no plans to grab unattended shopping carts and take them to the new storage facility at 150 Otis Street, at this time." I then asked if that meant you will never use the new storage facility to store the property from confiscated shopping carts? He replied, "I never said that," and reiterated that, "The City, at this time, has no plans to use the site at 150 Otis to store property from shopping carts." I responded by stating that I could infer from that statement that the new storage facility could be used at a later date in the not-to-distance future to store confiscated property.

I concluded my interview with George Smith by asking him to promise me that The City would not at a later date use the depot at 150 Otis Street to store illegally seized property by DPW from confiscated shopping carts. Smith replied, "I do not make promises."

Does George Smith make promises or not? In an article written by a San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer, Jonathan Curiel, on Wednesday, July 5th, Smith was quoted as saying, "One of my promises to them was that we would come up with a storage facility." Or does he make promises when its politically expedient to do so?

Amid the wrangling between community organizations and the Mayor's Office on Homelessness, the free storage facility has gotten a good report card from the shopping cart community. People like Tom McNally think it can be a model for other cities if it continues to exist in its current state.


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