Herding carts: The need to treat symptoms

The Medford City Council is reacting to complaints about behavior downtown by proposing to expand the exclusion zone that can result in barring specific individuals from a downtown area, and simultaneously grappling with the proliferation of stray shopping carts around town. Both approaches amount to treating a symptom, not the disease, but the treatments are still necessary.

The exclusion zone, adopted in April, has had an apparent effect: Some of Medford's homeless population have taken to congregating on the front lawn of the county courthouse on Oakdale Avenue — just west of the existing exclusion zone boundary. Some of those people engage in behavior that is illegal and generates complaints, such as public drunkenness, graffiti, urinating in public, failing to control dangerous dogs, harassment and menacing.

The exclusion zone allows police to bar specific individuals from the zone for 90 days for unlawful behavior.

County Administrator Danny Jordan asked the City Council in a letter to expand the exclusion zone to include the courthouse, the Justice Building, the Juvenile Justice facility and the District Attorney's Office, as well as adjacent parking lots. Jordan says the general public may feel intimidated and unwilling to access county services provided in those buildings.

Stray shopping carts are another symptom of homelessness, because homeless people use them to transport their belongings. Rounding up the carts and either returning them to the stores they belong to or destroying them falls to parks and recreation staff, who have better things to do with their time.

The council is considering an ordinance that would require shopping carts to be labeled with the phone number of a collection company that would respond and retrieve the cart. Grocery stores would then pick up the carts belonging to them.

We recognize that a cart ordinance wouldn't do anything about the homeless population that scatters the carts to begin with. It would, however, help improve the city by removing the eyesores that abandoned carts represent.

We do take issue with the idea that stores should be fined $50 if they fail to pick up their carts. It's hardly the stores' fault that the carts disappeared in the first place. And shopping carts are relatively expensive to replace, costing $80 to $150 each, which should provide an incentive for their owners to collect them.

The Food Marketing Institute estimates shopping cart theft costs retailers $180 million a year in this country alone. A single grocery store can spend $8,000 to $10,000 a year replacing stolen carts.

Retailers should work with the city on a system that will result in more carts being returned, benefiting the businesses and the public at the same time.

The council will take up the exclusion zone issue today. Again, expanding the zone won't confront the underlying issue of homelessness, but targeting illegal behavior is a legitimate goal if it makes the downtown area safer for the general public.

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