A bright-orange shopping cart lies tipped on its side near a bus stop along a major thoroughfare in a Denver suburb. A stone’s throw away, another sits next to a fence just across the street from the big-box retailer that owns it.
This snapshot of urban blight, found in Lakewood but indicative of a problem that exists elsewhere along the Front Range, is a reflection of rising home prices and with them, growing housing insecurity and homelessness, officials say. Those realities underline the challenges associated with cleanup efforts by a small but rising number of communities where the problem is seen as a threat to public health, safety and welfare.
“We have skyrocketing home prices that are making it harder and harder for low-income families to find a place to live,” said Cathy Alderman, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “We also know that with increasing rents, people are being forced out of their homes or giving up things like health care and food just to pay the rent. And, if someone is forced out of their home for inability to pay rent, finding a new place to live can be extremely difficult because we have a severe shortage of affordable housing units.”
Lakewood, which last year collected more than 200 abandoned carts, is among the first metro-area cities to wrestle with the issue. Just this week, it advanced a proposal that would prod retailers to better guard their carts and, should they migrate off-site, retrieve them. Lone Tree passed a measure on abandoned shopping carts earlier this year, aiming to keep the wheeled wagons from blocking sidewalks and clogging bus stops.
But managing runaway carts isn’t as easy as it looks — there’s the cost to retrieve them and a potential thicket of legal questions concerning property rights once one is found. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 let stand a lower-court ruling that said that Los Angeles could not confiscate and destroy property belonging to those who are homeless. And since many of those possessions end up in shopping carts, simply retrieving a cart — especially if it has been moved on to private property — is no simple matter.
Denver was hit with a lawsuit last year, in which advocates for the homeless claimed the city had violated the constitutional rights of homeless people by destroying their property and clearing camps without proper warning. While Lakewood doesn’t have as concentrated a homeless population as Denver, it collected an average of 20 cast-aside shopping carts per month in 2017, and it keeps a color-coded map showing dozens of locations where carts end up.
The 2017 point-in-time survey found that there were 394 individuals and 244 families experiencing homelessness in Jefferson County alone. Alderman cited federal data in saying that more than 2,700 students in schools in the county experienced homelessness between 2015 and 2016.
Lakewood, Colorado’s fifth-largest city, didn’t want to swing too heavy a hammer in addressing the problem. On Monday night, the City Council passed an ordinance that doesn’t emphasize punishment against grocers and other big-box retailers but rather encourages them to work with the city to corral the problem.
“It’s less punitive, and more ‘Let’s work together,'” Mayor Adam Paul said. “By having this conversation, and a little push from the government, the private sector will take care of the problem on its own.”
The ordinance, which faces a final vote in two weeks, offers up various options for dealing with the issue, including a potential city contract with a private shopping cart retrieval service or simply letting retailers forge such an arrangement themselves without city involvement. The city will have an as-yet-undefined enforcement power, should a cooperative approach not work.
“It is intended to keep us out of the cart business,” said Jay Hutchison, Lakewood’s director of public works. “The beauty of it is, if it is done well, it’s the least expensive option and equally effective in getting carts off the street.”
Lakewood’s measure differs from the blunter approach taken by Lone Tree. The Douglas County city gives shopping cart owners — typically retailers — 48 hours to remove a cart the city has discovered or face a $1,000-a-day fine.
Chris Howes, the president of the Colorado Retail Council, gave Lakewood’s ordinance a thumbs-up.
“Flexibility is a good word,” Howes said. “It allows our members to take the initiative to get the carts themselves.”
But retailers point to other problems.
Safeway spokeswoman Kris Staaf said grocers are hamstrung by the fact that carts are stolen property once they leave the parking lot. She said the company doesn’t want to send young clerks, some in their teens, chasing after people absconding with carts.
Staaf said Safeway has three stores in Lakewood, and store managers do report many carts slipping off-site.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to keep them on our property,” she said. “We try to make sure we are out in the parking lot and returning these carts to the store on an hourly basis.”
Safeway employs wheel-locking technology on shopping carts at some of its stores, but Staaf said people have been known to drag a cart off property even after the wheels have stopped turning. With conventional carts costing up to $150 apiece, Staaf said, Safeway and other retailers have no desire to see their carts regularly disappearing.
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Cathy Hatfield, interim executive director of The Action Center in Lakewood, praised the city’s proposed ordinance because it doesn’t try to target those who take the carts. The Action Center serves 20,000 Jefferson County households a year with a variety of human service programs.
“We do have people who don’t have a car, and this is how they get their groceries home,” she said.
Paul, Lakewood’s mayor, said the city will likely test out the ordinance to see how it works and then decide if it needs to be tweaked. But going into this week’s council meeting, Paul was optimistic the measure’s emphasis on collaboration with retailers could serve as a model for other metro area communities dealing with the same issue.
“When you have private industry not fighting you,” he said, “you’re hitting a home run.”