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Homeless can exchange carts for rolling duffel bags

Church members have donated 50 bags to ease a theft problem that drives some people buggy.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 19, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Community activist Steve Kersker remembers how distraught one of his young helpers became when police emptied a homeless man's shopping cart of his worldly possessions and took the stolen cart away.

That was the genesis for a program that will go into effect Monday. At 10:30 a.m., representatives from the city's homeless task force and police will distribute duffel bags with wheels to the homeless in exchange for the shopping carts so many use now.

Police and advocates like Kersker hope the bags will cut down on citations and arrests. Stolen and discarded shopping carts have become the bane of downtown businesses and neighborhoods where the homeless congregate. Still, areas around shopping centers such as Gateway Mall and Seville Square near Pinellas Point also deal with abandoned carts. For supermarkets, a stolen cart can mean $100 to more than $300 lost.

In the past three years, police have given out more than 300 warnings and made about a dozen arrests of homeless people because of shopping carts, said Sgt. Gary Robbins of the St. Petersburg Police Department's downtown deployment division.

"There is a state statute that says you can't take shopping carts out of a shopping center," he said.

The idea of wheeled duffel bags for the homeless is a good one, Robbins said.

"We just felt that we needed to come up with a way to give somebody a different alternative to taking a shopping cart. Other cities are doing that. I was just out in Long Beach, Calif. They had passed out the rolling duffel bags," he said.

The bags have been donated by the homeless outreach team at King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church. Yolanda Giovannetti, who started the outreach ministry, said the church purchased 50 bags. A few have been given to the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, she said. The rest will be given to homeless people Monday as they gather for lunch at St. Vincent de Paul, 401 15th St. N. If any bags remain, they will be distributed at Williams Park and around Mirror Lake or given to police, who will distribute them as needed.

Ronda Russick, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul South Pinellas, said the duffel bag program will make life a bit easier for the homeless.

"It's their own and they can carry it with them and it's not as cumbersome" as the carts, she said.

"I think the people who have donated the money to purchase them have done a great thing," Mrs. Russick said.

Walt Rubel, a spokesman for Albertson's supermarkets, said abandoned carts typically are an urban problem. Stores near apartment complexes and with lots of walk-in traffic are affected, he said.

"Generally, there isn't a lot you can do, other than hiring armed guards," Rubel said.

In some cases, stores hire bounty hunters to retrieve the carts, he said. Albertson's also is introducing an electronic system that causes the wheels of shopping carts to lock at the edge of parking lots. Kash n' Karry, on 62nd Avenue S in the Pinellas Point neighborhood, already uses such a system. Store manager John Sievenpiper said neighbors are pleased.

Bill Tollett, district manager for Albertson's stores in Pinellas and Pasco counties, said stores are caught in a bind because they want to keep both their carts and their customers. He said they don't want to make customers uncomfortable.

As for the homeless who use the carts to transport their valuables, the duffel bag program may not solve the blight of abandoned buggies, advocates say.

"We realize that they might sell them," said Ms. Giovannetti. "And some of them will use them."

Kersker told the story of a homeless woman who begged for a bag ahead of time. When he saw her a few days later, she still had her cart and was using it to carry around the duffel bag.

"We are going to have to have a lot of love when we try to implement this program," Kersker said. "It's an educational thing that we are doing. We'll see how it works."

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