Mayor reluctantly postpones plan to seize carts from homeless

SAN FRANCISCO - Mayor Willie Brown postponed his plan to have police seize shopping carts from street people on Tuesday, saying that advocates for the homeless have overreacted and misrepresented his idea.

''There's no sweep. There's no confiscation of goods and services of people,'' Brown said. ''It's not anything near the hysteria that I have read and heard surrounding this.''

The mayor's plan, which leaked out late last week, would require police and other city workers to seize the carts and cite the homeless for possessing stolen property, while directing them to shelters and other services.

''Mayor Brown wants to turn the city into Disneyland, which would be great if we lived in a fairyland, but we don't,'' said Judy Appel, staff attorney for the Coalition on Homelessness.

In exchange for giving up their modern-day pack mules, street people would get a couple of plastic bags and space in a city-run storage unit.

''Where are you going to carry 40 pounds of bedding? In a plastic bag?'' complained Reuben G. Madrigal, 33, one of several men lounging near a long row of overloaded carts on United Nations Plaza, where hundreds of homeless people gather each day.

It simply won't work, said ''Blu,'' one of several homeless men who debated the proposal Tuesday morning along a block of Market Street, where six carts loaded with clothes and bags remained untouched by police.

''I don't know what that man has in mind, coming after all these people in the street with their meager possessions,'' said Blu, who may be exempt, since he was balancing a tent, two backpacks, a milk crate, three pillows, two extra pairs of shoes and other possessions on top of a baby stroller.

The plan had been scheduled to be enforced Tuesday morning, but after a long weekend of complaints and a meeting with police officials, Brown decided to postpone the cart seizures.

''This is really folk trying to do what they can for the most unfortunate and the most poverty stricken and it can't be romanticized about and it can't be politically exploited,'' Brown said.

Brown didn't say what he would do next, and his office did not respond to requests for further comment.

Solving the city's seemingly intractable homeless problem was a top priority for Brown when he took office four years ago. An estimated 15,000 people are homeless in San Francisco, 10 times the number of shelter beds. From the dreadlock and tie-dye wearing teens who flock to Haight-Ashbury's drug scene to the Vietnam veterans and crack users who congregate downtown, street people are ubiquitous in the city - and they have many defenders.

Brown called off the seizures hours before Supervisor Tom Ammiano introduced legislation requiring officers to giving the homeless 24 hours notice, and asked the mayor and the police chief to delay the sweep.

But another supervisor, Amos Brown, praised the mayor's original plan and said allowing homeless to keep stolen property is an indulgence that ill-serves them. ''Now those carts were not made for people to put their possessions in,'' he said. ''It's just ludicrous that we would violate the purpose of a cart.''

According to a police department memo, Brown's Shopping Cart Recovery Policy would require officers to stop anyone pushing ''a suspected misappropriated shopping cart,'' try to find the rightful owner and cite or arrest anyone who doesn't cooperate. City workers would confiscate the carts, public health inspectors would examine them for biohazardous material, and social workers would refer cartless people to shelters or other services.

The mayor's spokeswoman, Kandace Bender, said the program aims to educate street people about underused services, as well as recover stolen property.

''It's completely ridiculous,'' said Ms. Appel. ''It's a mean-spirited program aimed at ''aesthetic cleansing,'' and it doesn't attack the real issues of poverty, she said.

Losing the carts, which cost about $100 apiece, costs state grocers millions of dollars each year, but the California Grocers Association does not blame homeless people for it, said association spokesman Todd Priest.

In cities like San Francisco, he said, the culprits are often shoppers, who roll their groceries all the way home and don't return the carts.

The shopping-cart sweep had been scheduled to start three weeks before Election Day, and former Mayor Frank Jordan, who is challenging Brown for the job, also said it was a mistake. Jordan, a former police chief, should know - opposition forced him to abandon a similar plan six years ago.

Meanwhile, the homeless and their supporters are getting creative. Some have painted their carts pink, assuming no retailer wants a pink cart back. Others talk of rebuilding the carts to look like something else. Still others are resigned to giving up their rolling homes.

Asked who owns the cart holding his bedding and belongings, Darrell Sophy, 50, shrugged. ''Safeway,'' he said. And, ''If it's theirs, they're entitled to get it back.''

Of course, then he'd have to deposit his stuff somewhere else.

''Might put it on Willie Brown's front yard, I don't know,'' he said. ''Put my tent up there.''


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