August 8, 2011 Editorial
Home sweet shopping cart
Just when you had given up all hope and thought that the authorities
had the final word, for a moment at least, 'the universe bends toward
By Jeff Dietrich
It looked like an anti-terrorist takedown: five cop cars, 10 police
officers, a yellow skip loader and a 5-ton dump truck. They screeched
to a halt and blocked off
bomber or a hidden nuclear device; it was the four red shopping carts
parked in front of our building. Those of us who had worked on skid
row for a while were not surprised; we'd seen it all before.
It has been standard city policy since the mid-1980s to have the
aforementioned convoy of skip loader, dump truck and police escort
patrol the streets of skid row to confiscate the unattended
possessions of homeless people — belongings deemed superfluous,
excessive or simply trash. Often these sweeps would take medication,
identification papers and family photos, the last vestiges of past
Between 1989 and 2005, three lawsuits, two by civil rights attorney
Carol Sobel, were filed and won in state and federal courts against
the city of
result, the police are required to give sufficient notice before
removing property of the homeless, and the city must pay damages to
homeless people for possessions that had been taken and dumped rather
than stored for a certain length of time.
Despite these court victories and the periodic interdiction of
homeless activists, the city and police have continued their policy of
what amounts to theft from the homeless.
Like a battle-weary soldier who has seen too much, you can get a hard
heart. But on this particular occasion, one of our volunteers from the
suburbs observed the entire episode and was shocked. "Can't we do
something about this?" Richard asked. "They just took everybody's
stuff. They were just eating lunch and when they rushed out to grab
their shopping carts, the police said, 'No, this is abandoned
It's always unsettling for our volunteers from the suburbs. They think
the rules that apply there should apply on skid row. But that's not
how it works. Despite those court cases, if you are gone for five
minutes to wash, eat or relieve yourself, you can lose all of your
possessions. If you leave a friend in charge of your shopping cart and
the police suspect that your friend is not the actual owner — boom —
gone to the city dump. I felt like the cop in that old Jack Nicholson
movie. I imagined myself saying to our volunteer, "Forget it, Jake.
So inured had I become to the way things are that I did not even
bother to contact Carol Sobel about the incident. Fortunately, others
did. She came, took depositions, collected photos and went back to
I was heartened but did not have high expectations for the hearing.
The way city officials and police tell their story of skid row,
everyone on the streets is either a drug addict or a dealer, and those
people do not have a constitutional right to security in their person
or property. So in June, when we gathered in the august federal
courtroom, I was expecting an affirmation of police impunity.
But I was as unprepared as the deputy city attorney was for the
announcement that Judge Philip Gutierrez made: Before we begin today,
I need to inform the court that in 1980 I was a summer intern at the
Catholic Worker soup kitchen. I chopped onions, I served food and I
cleaned toilets. But I have had no contact with them since. Therefore
I see no reason to recuse myself from this case.
Whoa! Our jaws dropped. At the end of the court day we got the federal
injunction halting the seizure and destruction of the personal
property of the homeless. The judge ruled that homeless individuals
have an expectation of privacy in their property, even if left on the
sidewalk for short periods. Richard was elated. For him, it confirmed
that the system works. I was in a state of shock. Where did this come
We are all formed by our individual life experiences. We are raised
Republican or Democrat; Protestant, Jewish or Catholic. But Gutierrez,
however improbably, appears to have been formed in some measure by his
experience of chopping onions, cleaning toilets and serving food to
the homeless at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen.
I'm not saying that's the only reason he ruled the way he did, but
from the perspective of those of us who work with the homeless, and
the perspective of the homeless folks who push shopping carts
containing the last of their earthly treasures, it is like one of
those unlikely biblical stories.
Just when you give up all hope, just when you think that the
authorities have the final word, just when you think that the rules of
the suburbs cannot possibly apply on skid row, for a moment at least,
to paraphrase the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., "the universe bends
Byline for attached photo: Eric Hill, age 48, says he sits on the same
Skid Row corner everyday. (Katie Falkenberg / For The Times)
Jeff Dietrich is a member of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker
http://lacatholicworker.org/ and has worked on skid row for 40 years.
His most recent book, "Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor