15 November 2005

Shopping Cart City

I've been seeing the homeless Bush-supporting guy pushing his shopping cart all over town, but I haven't yet had a chance to ask him what his story is. Well, that's not completely true; it's more like I haven't yet been in a sufficiently receptive mood to hear what his story is.

My feelings about the numerous people living out of shopping carts here in Berkeley have shifted over the years. Originally I was broadly sympathetic, as I think most Berkeleyans were. Besides, this was back in the 1980s, I was still smoking pot, and eagerly looking for any tangible evidence that Reagan was destroying society and forcing millions of decent Americans into poverty. The sad characters trundling up and down Shattuck Avenue with all their earthly possessions in a stolen shopping cart were our version of Depression-era soup lines: visible proof that capitalism had failed and that the End Times were near.

Since then we've had two Bushes and a Clinton, the economy has gone up, down and sideways, and the number of shopping cart people is, if anything, greater than ever. And as the shopping cart life has become institutionalized, some of the more successful denizens of the street are no longer satisfied with one shopping cart; today I saw a guy huffing and puffing as he dragged a wired-together train of five carts up Hearst Avenue, his possessions and scavenged treasures neatly divided and categorized among them.

I first began losing sympathy for the shopping cart people after I spotted a couple of them methodically stripping wheels off bicycles that had unwisely been left parked overnight in downtown Berkeley. What sympathy I had left pretty much vanished when the front wheel disappeared from my own bike, parked right on my front porch. I remember being surprised at the time, because I'd always thought of the shopping cart people as gentle, lumbering victims, a bit untidy perhaps, but an essentially harmless part of the local scene, like the spare-changing punks and the time-warp hippies. Then it occurred to me, "Well, if they'd steal a $150 shopping cart, why wouldn't they steal a $75 bike wheel?"

I tried this idea out on a few bike-riding friends, only to find them absolutely appalled at my heartlessness. The gist of their reaction was that taking a shopping cart from a local market wasn't stealing. "Safeway can afford a few shopping carts," they'd say. "So," I'd ask, "if some homeless person needs a bicycle, does that mean he's entitled to take yours?"

"That's different," they'd bellow, as if I was being deliberately obtuse. And perhaps I was. I'd certainly lived in Berkeley long enough to be familiar with the idea that people, especially "the poor," are entitled to take whatever they can get from "the rich," and, especially, "the corporations." To be perfectly honest, I'd subscribed to this theory myself for many years. It was only when I began questioning the terms that I ran into trouble.

Who, exactly, qualified as "poor," and therefore entitled to free stuff? Conversely, how "rich" did someone have to be before they abdicated their right to own property? At what precise point did a business change from being a "locally owned mom and pop" operation worthy of our sympathy and support into a blood-sucking predatory corporation that deserved to be looted into oblivion?

Unfortunately, these are not the sort of questions you want to ask around Berkeley, unless you're looking to be vilified as a right-wing Republican hater of the poor and oppressed, or at best, as someone who just likes to stir up pointless arguments. "Why do you even need to ask?" friends would say. "It's perfectly obvious who's rich and who's poor. You're just engaging in intellectual nitpicking."

Well, no, it wasn't perfectly obvious, and it's still not. And of course relativity comes into it: street beggars in downtown Berkeley are fabulously rich compared with millions of people trying to scrape out some sort of sustenance in sub-Saharan Africa, and horrendously poor compared with even the average working-class student or laborer in Berkeley. The inequities of the world are as myriad as the proposed solutions to them.

I've come to believe that the whole shopping cart/street begging/homelessness issue is not mainly one of economics. There are exceptions, no doubt, but it's my observation that the majority of Berkeley's street people are not living out of shopping carts because Bush has driven them to it, but because Berkeley has invited them to. That's not to say that there's something wonderfully attractive about living on the street - the relatively short time I spent being homeless easily disabused me of that notion - but that if it's accepted as a legitimate, even natural way of life, a certain number of people will decide, "Hey, it beats paying rent." Especially if those people have drug, alcohol or mental illness issues that make it difficult or impossible for them to maintain a "normal" life indoors.

The thing that really kills me is how Berkeleyans love to flatter themselves about how great-hearted and broad-minded they are to tolerate the mini-Hoovervilles that spring up in the city's parks and downtown streets. No politician in his or her right mind would suggest that the police confiscate the hundreds of shopping carts being pushed around town and return them to their owners; once when somebody in San Francisco actually proposed this, Supervisors quickly countered that then the City would have to find money to buy new shopping carts for the homeless.

But to me, Berkeley's self-proclaimed "tolerance" is actually indicative of one of the nastiest streaks in the city's character: it's self-centered obliviousness. Berkeley spends more money per capita on services for the homeless than probably anywhere else in America, yet the only visible result seems to be an ever-increasing number of homeless people. If this were strictly a matter of economics, then the same thing would be happening in cities across America, but it's not. It's not even happening in other Bay Area communities. By offering just enough help to allow people to continue live on the streets but never escape them, Berkeley reminds me of those rich and oh-so-liberal parents who give their kids an allowance in lieu of actually caring for them, and then are surprised when the little darlings end up in jail or dead from an overdose.

I've seen too many hippie parents operate in a similar way: in the name of being "groovy" and "liberated," they exercised no discipline or control over their kids. "Kids need to be free," they'd argue, when what they really meant was, "Hey, I'm not about to give up partying to look after some boring brats." It might sound strange to compare grown-up street people to children in need of care and discipline, but if someone is incapable of caring for him or herself, that person is effectively a child. Does he or she deserve financial and other material help from society? Yes, undoubtedly. But by handing out minimal help and thinking that the job is done, by being afraid to be so un-groovy as to say, "No, it's not acceptable for you to live permanently on the sidewalk in the middle of downtown," Berkeley is ultimately being as heartless - if not more so - than those cities who simply sweep the homeless from the streets under threat of beatings or prison.


Wesley said...

I was impressed by the L.A. approach of having turnstiles by the exit doors that were too small to fit the shopping carts through.

Presto. No shopping carts on the streets, no homeless people with shopping carts.

Of course, this just causes an increased medical burden on the city to deal with the back pain and injuries caused by people hauling their possessions around without the aid of a cart...

Larry Livermore said...

That's a new one on me. I'm actually not quite sure how serious you are, but I guess it sounds plausible.

I guess the real issue for a city to decide is whether it's appropriate or conducive to the general well-being to allow people to live semi-permanently on the street. If yes, then it's not unreasonable for them to have some kind of cart for their possessions. But why should the supermarkets be responsible for providing said carts? And if we're to turn a blind eye to people stealing shopping carts, shouldn't we turn an equally blind eye to people stealing food? After all, that's even more essential. I'm seeing slippery slopes here.

Wesley said...

I am serious about the L.A. approach (it's most prevalent, naturally, in the most urban areas), though the musings on medical implications are probably a bit suspect.

For the record, I agree that shopping carts should not be gratis items. The S.F. plan to buy the homeless carts actually makes a certain amount of sense to me, in a treat-the-symptoms kind of way.

Ever rolled a shopping cart down a slippery slope? Really, any slope will do...