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New Shopping Carts Rolled Out for Homeless

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Robert Hosey grinned with pride Monday as he showed off the spanking new shopping cart he received in exchange for a battered old one.

“This one’s a Cadillac,” the 60-year-old homeless man said as he filled the new cart with his bedroll and crushed aluminum beer cans.

“I love it.”

Hosey received one of the first of 100 carts bought by homeless activists and distributed on downtown’s skid row in response to police confiscation of store-owned carts.

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The activists contend that the homeless use carts to transport belongings and collect the bottles and cans they cash in at recycling centers. Police say the carts can be used as portable narcotic stores, as stepladders to break into buildings and as cubbyholes to hide from passing patrol cars. The Central City East police station picks up 25 to 60 carts a week in predawn sweeps of skid row, Sgt. Benny Castro said.

Stealing a grocery cart is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 100 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

Homeless activists say the raids are a form of harassment.

“I’ve seen police dump their possessions on the street, then ticket them for littering,” said Eric Debode, a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker, a charity that runs a skid row soup kitchen. “It’s scandalous to push your possessions around on the street. But it’s even more scandalous to harass them for being poor.” Police denied that they harass the homeless.

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The new carts, which cost $100 apiece, were bought from an Oklahoma manufacturer by an anonymous donor and will be distributed by the Catholic Worker and Las Familias del Pueblo, a community center on 7th Street in the garment district.

The distinctive black plastic and metal carts were custom-made with the words “The Catholic Worker” emblazoned in large letters on both sides. A sign affixed to the cart warns that the carts belong to the Catholic Worker and that “unauthorized possession of this cart by non-homeless persons is a violation of state law.”

On Monday morning, activists paraded the balloon-festooned carts from the center to the Central City East police station, a block away, where they held a news conference to announce their endeavor.

“It is the shopping cart that allows the homeless person to maintain their last shred of human dignity by enabling them to carry their few possessions--the mementos of a life that’s been stripped from them,” said Jeff Dietrich, who works at the soup kitchen.

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“These are street-legal carts that can’t be taken away.”

Two homeless men who strolled by at the moment took the opportunity to trade in their used carts. One of them, a 57-year-old who gave his name only as Robert, pulled a crumpled citation from his jeans pocket that he had received the night before--the third he had received for possessing a stolen cart in a month, he said. He said he had no money to pay the citation. “I asked them to take me to jail, but they wouldn’t,” he said.

He was quickly handed a new cart, complete with a baby blue helium balloon attached.

“I’m gonna put a lock on it,” he said, beaming.

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A group of police officers watched the conference stoically from the station steps.

“It’s a bad idea,” said Capt. Richard Bonneau, shaking his head. “We’ve been going about the effort for years to take the carts off the streets because of criminal activities. The money could have gone for better uses.”

Mayor Richard Riordan’s office took a wait-and-see attitude.

“We recognize the human element here, but we also recognize the LAPD’s concern for the criminal element,” said spokeswoman Noelia Rodriguez. “The proof is in the details.”

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