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Protecting Possessions For City’s Homeless Strains Resources

Friday November 12, 2004

Davida Coady welcomes just about anybody into her drug and alcohol rehabilitation program at the Berkeley Veterans’ Building, but she isn’t rolling out the red carpet for the building’s newest arrival. 

The city is spending $50,000 to move its storage locker program for homeless people into the veterans’ building by the beginning of next year and will spend an extra $45,000 a year to keep it operating. 

“The lockers are such an incredible waste of money,” said Coady, whose program, Options Recovery Services, receives $54,000 a year from the city. She fears that the lockers, slated for the building’s courtyard will expose her clients to drug dealers, physical violence and vermin. 

“I’ve only known one client who ever had a use for a locker,” she said. “When we’ve helped other people clean them out it’s been just garbage, drugs, needles and syringes.” 

In a city that by the most recent estimates is home to more than 800 homeless people, dealing with their possessions can be a divisive and expensive proposition. 

This year, for instance, the City of Berkeley initiated a new program to store shopping carts and other items which appeared to belong to the homeless in a refrigerated shipping container stored underneath I-80 on University Avenue.  

City policy calls for keeping such property for 90 days so the owners have a chance to claim it. The city spent about $8,000 to buy the container and will spend an extra $3,000 a year to refrigerate it so that perishable goods left inside the carts don’t spoil, said Deputy Public Works Director Patrick Keilch. Additionally, he said, the two city workers who pick up an estimated 1.5 tons of abandoned property each day—two-thirds of which is estimated to be left behind by homeless people—cost the city a combined $150,000 a year. 

“It can be a pain in the neck, but this is one of the impacts that cities with a lot of homeless people face,” said Berkeley Mental Health Director Harvey Tureck. 

Tureck has been working to revamp the city’s locker program originally at Shattuck Avenue Self Storage on the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Ward Street for several years. Initiated in 1993 as part of the city’s effort to improve homeless services after city voters passed a ballot measure to crack down on aggressive panhandling, the program, which included 99 lockers at the private storage center, had come under fire from both homeless service providers and neighbors. 

“[Homeless people] were using our driveways and side yards as bathrooms,” said Joan More, who lives near the storage facility. 

While neighbors complained about excessive loitering, the Suitcase Clinic, a homeless advocacy group, was pushing for stronger city supervision at the site. 

“Our clients were complaining that they couldn’t get a locker because there was no turnover and that many of the lockers belonged to people who had left town or already received housing,” said Adam Balinger formerly of the Suitcase Clinic. 

When the storage facility tripled its rental rates in 2002, Tureck said, the city decided to seek a new home for the program. The initial plan, Tureck said, was to follow the model of Santa Cruz and spread out the lockers among homeless service providers and connect them to counseling. 

But when the city sent out proposal requests to service providers, it received only one response. With no other options, the city struck a deal in April with Building Opportunities For Self-Sufficiency (BOSS) to install 96 lockers at the veterans’ building where BOSS operates the Multi Agency Service Center (MASC) from the building’s basement. BOSS is scheduled to receive $45,000 a year to run the program. 

Belongings formerly stored in the lockers at Shattuck and Ward have been transferred to a different shipping container under I-80 where they will remain for 90 days before being discarded. 

Although the locker program was approved by the City Council in April, Coady and other service providers at the veterans’ building, including The Berkeley Place for the Deaf, said city officials didn’t inform them of the program until last month. 

The city will start the program gradually with only 20 lockers in service, and will erect a gate around the lockers to keep clients from accessing them after the MASC closes at 4 p.m.  

BOSS will assign a full-time case manager to provide counseling to locker users, which the city did not do at the Shattuck facility. 

“This is not going to be ‘here’s your locker and we’ll check in with you in ten months,’” BOSS’ Robert Long. “We’re going to know the client and know that they are not storing weapons or drugs.” 

BOSS’s Robert Long said the importance of storage space for the homeless, such as the locker program, was illustrated earlier this year when BOSS briefly allowed clients to store shopping carts in the office’s courtyard. “People would fill up one cart and then leave and go fill up another. It got so bad we had to stop it,” he said.  

With city lockers hard to come by, many of Berkeley’s homeless have long used shopping carts to wheel around and store their belongings, to the chagrin of many of the local supermarkets who have had to replace their stock of metal carts more often they would like. 

Berkeley appears to be California’s unofficial capitol of shopping cart theft. Colleen Ferrington of Polaris Office Equipment, based in Tracy, Calif., said she sells more shopping carts to Berkeley supermarkets than to any other city, including San Francisco. 

Before Andronico’s Berkeley stores switched last year to a theft-proof car with a fifth wheel that drops down and disables the cart, the chain was ordering about 100 new carts a year per store, she said, almost a complete turnover.  

Homeless people usually don’t steal carts from stores, but pick them up after shoppers wheel them home and don’t return them, Ferrington added. 

While homeless people in Berkeley don’t seem to have much difficulty finding carts, they sometimes have trouble keeping them. When they are arrested or when they leave the carts unattended, the city removes them and until this year stored them for 90 days at the corporation yard. 

Under the new program, carts are taken by Public Works to the container and tagged. About ten percent of the items are retrieved, and those that aren’t after 90 days are either recycled or dumped. The belongings aren’t removed from carts before they are stored in case they contain hypodermic needles or other unsafe items. 

“A lot of money is spent on carts,” said Renee Cardinaux, city public works director. Most of the expenses, though, come from paying staff to haul off the abandoned property, not storing it, he added. 

The decision to store shopping carts is based on a state law that requires cities to store “lost property.” Acknowledging that shopping carts might not qualify as “lost property, Assistant City Attorney Matthew Orebic said the city attorney’s office preferred to err on the side of caution. 

“Is this ‘lost property’? Maybe not, but no court has determined that so. In an abundance of caution the city has adopted the 90-day period,” he said. 

He added that San Francisco, the University of California and Caltrans have all adopted 90-day holding periods for lost property after facing legal challenges. 

Another state law makes it illegal to be in possession of a shopping cart with the identification of the owner affixed to it, and requires the city to return the cart to the supermarket. Orebic, however, said the rule rarely applies in Berkeley because most shopping carts that are retrieved lack tags linking them to a particular market. 

In prior years, Cardinaux said the city contacted stores to pick up their carts, but few ever bothered. 

Local supermarket managers interviewed this week said the city’s storage program was news to them and with the average price for a new cart at $135, they wouldn’t turn away functioning carts. 

“We’d definitely take them back,” said Jerry Chow, an assistant manager at Safeway on Shattuck Avenue. “We just had to order a new batch.”