Friday, June 19, 2009

plight of the homeless cart

The trip from Katie’s house to Yosemite was about 3 hours. During that time we talked about all sorts of things, including my pondering the plight of the homeless. For some reason this intrigued Katie and so she allowed me to continue in discussing the homeless.

A few months ago, we had 90 degree weather for two weeks followed by 4 days of rain and cold. In fact, this late spring has been unseasonably cold and wetter than normal. It makes it hard to know what type of clothing you will need.

As the pioneers came across the trails from the east to Utah and Oregon, they would start with many possessions and arrive with few. Over the course of 4-8 months, they would get to the point where they just couldn’t hall that dresser - or china set, or bed frame, or what ever – one more step. Wagon and handcart companies would come along furniture out on the prairies just sitting along the trails. Only so much could fit in the hand cart and they only had so much energy to pull or push those hand carts.

Fast forward a hundred years. The problems are still the same except the travelers don’t have as far to go. For a few months now, I’ve been pondering how to make a better homeless shopping cart. First I guess we should discuss the problems with the current shopping cart.

Homeless use their shopping cart to store their clothes, their bedding, their shelter, and any business they are involved in. The main compartment should be used for carrying the anything business related – whether that is collecting cans, or material used for making jewelry, or whatever. This means that the clothing, shelter and bedding need to be stored somewhere else.

Before coming to a working conclusion on the clothing, shelter and bedding problem, I feel it is important to also discuss types of shopping carts. For several years, shopping carts came in one form – metal. Now there is a new generation of shopping carts out there: Plastic. Both carts have homeless benefits and homeless negatives. A plastic cart will never rust, but they are more brittle and can only carry so much weight. A metal cart can handle more weight but rust out easier. I tend to side with the metal cart when pondering the homeless. It therefore means I assume the homeless people are borrowing their shopping carts from a grocery store and not from Best Buy, Target, Home Depot or any other place that considers themselves hip enough to use plastic.

Going with that assumption, I have been studying the features of a metal shopping cart and trying to figure out which one works best to borrow from a neighborhood grocer. I have looked at a few shopping cart websites and have decided that the homeless need to borrow shopping carts with a big main compartment, a solid bar that is extended between the two back wheels (to push down on with a foot to get the cart over curbs or dead homeless people laying in the alley with them), and a bottom rack under the main compartment. This last item is critical to the storage of clothing.

Now, the challenges that come with modifying a shopping cart are the same challenges that apply to any item mass-produced or mass modified. The modification must be easy to do, they must be easy to maintain, and they must not be too hard to operate. Additionally, the modifications must not do any permanent damage to the borrowed shopping carts. (On the off chance that the borrower ever wants the cart back.)

Of the three areas I figure we’ll start with clothing first. Rarely does Bruce Wayne approach a homeless person and hand over his coat in the middle of fall. Instead, most homeless have a set collection of clothing that must help them get through all seasons. This is where the bottom shelf of the shopping cart comes in. That bottom shelf should have a waterproof container attached to the bottom. I have considered using a Tupperware container (which can be purchased in mass and at a discount rate) but am fearful that over repeated use the plastic would become brittle and chip. So I’m kind of lost on this one. I haven’t figured out an alternative though.

For bedding and shelter I’m thinking of using the same tool. I have decided that the sides of the shopping cart are a great place to attach items. I’ve decided that using 3 inch PVC sched 40 tubes would work best. What you do is buy it in 3 foot sections and put a cap on one end (glued on). Lines up the tubes with the open pipe being near the top of the back of the exterior side of the basket and the bottom (capped end) being at the bottom of the front part of the basket. This allows the tubes to be at an angle on cart. I had pondered drilling holes, 2 inches apart, on one side of the tube and stringing zip ties through it to attach it to the cart, but Katie had two points: (1) most homeless don’t have back up zip ties and so they can’t replace one if it snags or breaks off. (2) If by chance the borrowed from returns to demand their cart be reunited with the store it came from – the zip ties are a one time use and then would need to be removed and the homeless person would have no way of attaching it again. Instead Katie suggested Velcro. If you use self adhesive Velcro – I think that just might work. Once you wrap the pipes with the hook part (the soft side) and then use the loop part of Velcro to connect to the cart, you can place and remove the tubes as the homeless person’s carts change. I envision using the tubes to store rolled up blankets and a rolled up tarp. I envision another tube to be used for tent poles or to carry the rope used to string between two trees to throw the tarp over.

As I’ve been writing this at work on my laptop, one co-worker had another suggestion. She suggested that the shopping cart should have a feature where the front of the basket had a way to hold a cardboard box. I think this is interesting. I’ve thought about this and have decided that the box should not be attached to the cart permanently, but should instead just reside there when not in use. I’m going to make some assumptions about the homeless at this point and state that they are probably able to fold a cardboard box up better than I am able to fold the map I got from Yosemite last week. If my assumption is correct, I see a need for a shelf and bungee cords. The shelf should be bolted on (therefore I am adding the cost of 2 U-bolts, 4 lock washers and 4 wing nuts, along with the cost of a “L” shaped 2 inch – one inch on each part of the “L” – metal piece that will act as the shelf. I’m adding this to the costs already there for the pvc pipe, the Velcro and what ever we decide to use as the bottom drawer.), being bolted onto the lower part of the front of the shopping cart. The cardboard would then rest of the shelf and by using the two bungee cords, the homeless person can then bungee on the cardboard.

Does anyone have any suggestions for the waterproof box on the bottom? It has to be cheap and reliable are the only two criteria I’ve got (besides being waterproof)?

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