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Carts stay cool as Berkeley takes heat on storage policy

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

  • By: Patrick Hoge
  • Organization: San Francisco Chronicle

BERKELEY
Carts stay cool as city takes heat on storage policy
When the homeless lose or abandon stuff, it gets frozen


By Patrick Hoge, Chronicle Staff Writer

Berkeley tolerates its homeless people, and takes good care of their stuff when they abandon it in shopping carts.

Not only does the city pack carts and other belongings into a huge container in case folks want it back -- it also deep-freezes them for as long as 90 days.

About a year ago, Berkeley bought a 40-foot-long, 8-foot-wide refrigerated container for $8,200 after public works officials complained about vermin infesting carts stored at the city's outdoor corporation yard.

The city signed a five-year, $61,500 lease with Caltrans for land under the University Avenue overpass at Interstate 80 to put the container on, and ran power to the unit.

Deputy City Attorney Matthew Orebic said the city is heeding state law that requires storage of lost goods. He said it is not clear, however, that that law applies to unattended shopping carts because they may not be lost.

"We just do that to be safe and fair, to make sure that there's no argument that we've violated any laws and to be fair to the person,'' Orebic said. "What if you've got your medication in there?''

San Francisco and UC Berkeley also store homeless people's belongings as a result of lawsuits filed by homeless advocates, but they don't freeze them.

Critics say Berkeley's freezer program is an example of good intentions run amok. The city, which faces a $7.5 million deficit, should treat abandoned shopping carts as stolen property instead of worrying so much about the contents, they say.

"The amount of money wasted in this city is so outrageous it's ridiculous, '' said Jim Hultman, who learned of the cart freezing while fighting a $50,000- a-year program near his house that gave homeless people rented storage space.

But Orebic said it would be impractical, for legal and logistical reasons, for police to make a practice of seizing shopping carts from homeless people or charging them with misdemeanor theft charges.

Robert Long, coordinator of the Multi-Agency (homeless) Service Center in downtown Berkeley, said he was "conflicted'' about the storage program, but he knows that one person's trash is another person's treasure.

"I doubt that many of those carts will be claimed,'' Long said.

Marci Jordan, executive director of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, said she would like the money spent on other projects. "I don't see it as an effective strategy,'' she said.

Deputy Public Works Director Patrick Keilch said very few items from the hundreds of carts picked up annually are retrieved. He estimated the annual cost of refrigerating the stuff at 0 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit at about $3,000.

"Being Berkeley, we're pretty tolerant and we bend over backward. What's the phrase? 'Walk a mile in my shoes,' " said Keilch, who estimated the city spends about $100,000 annually for two people to clean stuff that homeless people leave in public areas.

Keilch opened the container for a Chronicle reporter and photographer last week to view the contents, which included a box of vinyl records, a broken music keyboard, several backpacks and a TV set, in addition to shopping carts.

A homeless man who lost his cart holding blankets and new shoes a month ago, when he left it to go to Oakland to face charges of public intoxication, said Monday that he did not know about the storage program.

But George Williams, 60, said it would have been a lot of trouble to find the right city officials and get to West Berkeley to retrieve his stuff.

"I never followed up,'' said Williams, who was pushing a different cart full of blankets, some food and a bottle of vodka.

Hultman and other critics of city spending practices are also outraged that the city throws out shopping carts, with stores passing the cost of lost carts -- typically $100 apiece -- on to customers.

"The residents end up paying more for their groceries,'' said Marie Bowman, who fought against $8 million in proposed city taxes that voters rejected this month.

By contrast, San Francisco takes everything out of carts, separates perishable goods and charges businesses if identifiable carts are not picked up within a few days.

Hultman provided a copy of an e-mail he received dated Jan. 12 from Public Works Director René Cardinaux stating that "at one time, stores were called to pick up their carts and a service used to pick them up, (but) this no longer happens.''

Cardinaux was not in the office Monday, but Keilch acknowledged that many carts have been trashed in the past. He said the city is now planning to hold meetings with local retailers to find out what they want done.

"Sometimes, market officials have said they don't want the carts back, and so typically the city has been throwing them out,'' Keilch said. Also, many carts are damaged or have identifying information removed, he said.

In Berkeley, cart contents are often put in garbage bags, but carts themselves are also sometimes wheeled into the freezer car. Keilch said sifting through cart contents to separate material of value from junk can be risky because of hazards such as hypodermic needles.

Cardinaux told the City Council in October that an added benefit of buying a freezer car is that it could serve as a temporary morgue in cases of a major disaster. But the main reason, he said, was that the city attorney advised that a storage program was needed.

Berkeley Bowl general manager Dan Kataoka said he did not know of the storage program but his store actively tries to retrieve wayward carts. The store loses about 300 carts a year, although many are stolen for sale to other stores outside Berkeley, he said.

Roy Pervall, 57, who has been homeless for five years, said Monday that while the city usually doesn't actively sweep up carts, he is careful to avoid losing his stuff.

"I never leave mine (cart),'' he said. "I never go anywhere without it.''

E-mail Patrick Hoge at phoge@sfchronicle.com.

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