It appears San Diego police responded to a news report about abandoned shopping carts by arresting and citing people who use them for survival while experiencing homelessness, an inewsource analysis has found.
In August 2019, CBS News 8 aired a two-minute segment drawing attention to abandoned shopping carts scattered across San Diego and how they can cost consumers in the checkout line. The response was almost immediate.
Arrests and citations against unhoused San Diegans in possession of a shopping cart increased by nearly 300%, according to an inewsource analysis of police data. City and police officials did not respond to any questions about this, nor did the news station.
But media experts criticized the reporting and emphasized what it left out — the perspective of people experiencing homelessness who rely on shopping carts every day. Without that perspective, viewers were left to fill in the gaps, said Toni Albertson, a journalism professor at USC Annenberg.
“You could see this ending up on Nextdoor or something, and then the narrative becomes something like, ‘Homeless people are committing crimes and affecting the price of our produce!’” Albertson said.
It appears the story began with an email. A San Diego resident contacted the news station and city officials, complaining about the abandoned carts and saying something needed to be done. The reporter featured a resident of a 55-and-older complex, who indicated elderly folks need help taking groceries home and might not bring the carts back, and a Target shopper, who chalked thefts up to human nature.
“They’re kind of throwing it out there and then letting people come to their own conclusions,” Albertson said, “which can be dangerous, in itself, to not have any meat to that story at all.”
Up until then, San Diego police officers were averaging about five arrests and citations per month involving the possession of a stolen shopping cart. These police encounters included other crimes such as encroachment or possession of a controlled substance about half of the time.
But after the segment aired, the average number of arrests and citations jumped to 21 per month — with a stolen shopping cart being the only reason for three out of every four encounters. That trend continued until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s important for journalists to consider the potential consequences of the reporting and to minimize any negative impacts as much as possible,” Albertson said.
One way to do that is by trying to talk to everyone who is directly affected, and that includes those who are affected not by their own choosing, said Anita Varma, an assistant professor with the University of Texas at Austin who leads an initiative that improves coverage of marginalized communities.
“If your only way of carrying your things around a city that won’t let you lie down and rest is a shopping cart,” Varma said, “then I would argue that’s not exactly your own choice that you’re making.”
And in San Diego, where police have stepped up enforcement of blocking a sidewalk or sleeping where it’s not allowed, having a cart to store and move your belongings is a necessity, said a man inewsource has agreed to identify only as David.
An artist and native San Diegan, David has been living on a Commercial Street sidewalk under an overpass for the past year. He keeps his belongings in a scarlet red shopping cart next to his tent with a heart spray painted on the rainfly.
“Some people have been living out here for years,” David said, “and you can’t put years’ worth of life in a backpack or duffle bag. It hurts carrying a bunch of duffle bags.”
Shopping carts aren’t cheap. It can cost between $100 and $200 to replace just one, said Justin Corea, with The Peggs Company, which supplies carts and other equipment to stores.
“It’s been an issue for a long time,” Corea said of stolen shopping carts, “but it seems like the past couple of years it's grown worse and compounded with (COVID-19) related production delays and capacity.”
Downtown businesses regularly raise concerns about abandoned or stolen shopping carts, said Sarah Brothers, with the Downtown San Diego Partnership. The Partnership encourages people to file a request through the city’s Get It Done app when they spot a cart, Brothers said.
Last year alone, officials responded to 145 complaints related to abandoned shopping carts on the Get It Done app. The city had 16 open requests as of Monday afternoon.
To be sure, people experiencing homelessness aren’t the only ones walking away with shopping carts. It includes people who walk to and from the grocery store and don’t return them, as well as those who intend to break them down and sell them for scrap metal, said Marco Saucedo, the head of retrieval for a cart retrieval service known as RMS. He works with grocers and retailers to get their carts back.
A number of state laws deal with this issue. It is illegal to remove, abandon, alter or possess a shopping cart in a way that deprives the business that it clearly belongs to — carts with plastic plates bearing the name of Vons or CVS with a phone number and store location, for example.
In San Diego, police are also encouraged to use another all-encompassing law known as appropriation of stolen property, according to training guidelines that were obtained by inewsource and last updated in 2016. Officers are generally supposed to enforce these laws after someone is arrested and in possession of a cart that clearly belongs to a business, the guidelines show. But records show officers also use these laws as probable cause to initiate contact with someone.
inewsource focused its analysis on the law that deals with mere possession of a shopping cart. To ensure the 300% increase wasn’t an anomaly, inewsource also analyzed arrests and citations for appropriation of stolen property. There, too, officers stepped up enforcement in the months that followed the TV news story. The actual number of arrests and citations against unhoused people in possession of a shopping cart is unknown.
The spike in arrests and citations began under former Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s administration. Mayor Todd Gloria’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but when officers stepped up enforcement efforts last year, his spokesperson told inewsource that officers were mainly concerned about keeping sidewalks clear.
It’s true that things feel different now, said David, the unhoused artist who aspires to go back to school. He said he’s only seen someone get in trouble for having a shopping cart once in the past two months, and it happened because the person was lagging behind on a day the city had scheduled a cleanup, known as an encampment abatement.
David doesn’t want to cause any trouble, he said, so he makes sure to pack up as soon as the city posts a notice about a scheduled cleanup and his shopping cart makes it easier. He uses it to hold all of his possessions, including clothes, books, journals and sketchbooks, and throws his tent on top when it’s time to move.
The city has three storage centers — two downtown and one near City Heights — that offer more than 1,000 free bins for unhoused people. David said he used to keep a few belongings in one bin downtown but lost everything when he didn’t access it for more than three months. In those cases, the city considers items abandoned and discards them.
A shopping cart is really a mobile storage unit, David said, which can offer all kinds of possibilities for people who prefer to have their belongings close by. It can also be used to earn some quick cash by collecting recyclables, he added.
But he admits that he can see both sides of the coin.
“It is against the law,” David said. “I guess we are in the wrong for having them. But if you see people with the carts, they didn’t steal the carts themselves. A lot of times they just found them.
“It’s almost like a necessity out here for some individuals.”
Jake Harper contributed to this report.