Is Housing Authority compromise enough?

Chestnut Manor shopping cart No. 1.... 'decorate' Chestnut manor. Chestnut Manor shopping cart No. 2.... from town businesses ...Chestnut Manor shopping cart No. 3.A wide selection
of carts ...

For more than two years, J. Stephen Ward has been on a mission -- to reverse what he sees as the curse of shopping carts missing from area markets and ending up at Arlington Housing Authority buildings. He calls the carts "stolen."

"I have been on a 'crusade' to purge the AHA of large fleets of stolen shopping carts .... In that time I have worked to get more than $8,000 in stolen carts recovered from Winslow Towers alone," he told YourArlington.

"Many [worth] thousands [of dollars] more are inside the three other AHA properties. I have photos of them all. That includes the three stolen shopping carts that were in Precinct 7 and 9 election hall at Chestnut Manor. I am including a few ... to [illustrate] this practice of AHA allowing thousands of dollars of stolen property to remain inside of these taxpayer-built properties."

The resident of Winslow Towers provided emails showing he has appealed to officials of the Housing Authority, the police chief, the town manager and members of the state Department of Housing & Community Development. He says he has been ignored.

Not so, some of them say.

AHA takes steps

John J. Griffin, AHA executive director, responded in detail, noting that the authority board has tried to work out a compromise.

Aware of Ward's campaign to prohibit the long-standing practice of tenants using shopping carts from the local businesses to transport their purchases to and from the stores to their apartments, Griffin wrote in April: "He has appeared before the board many times and has spoken with and or written to a vast number of people concerning this from local and State Government to the Police Department and local stores.

"He has also harassed his fellow tenants using these carts to transport their items.

"In hopes of mitigating his concerns, the AHA had purchased our own carts for the tenants to use. In addition, the AHA staff would contact the stores when there seem to be a collection of store carts on site.

"These stores eventually send a representative to retrieve them and are appreciative of the tenants shopping locally and our efforts to notify them."

It is insufficient, Griffin allows: "Unfortunately, our efforts continue to fall short of Mr. Ward's expectations."

The executive director offered this background: The authority owns and operates 705 units and provides rental assistance for an additional 428 units through the
Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8). "Collectively, the AHA provides housing for more than 2,100 people with few complaints.

"While the AHA had purchased their own carts, we are thankful to our local stores for allowing our tenants the use of their carts as well and will continue to work with them for their ultimate return to their store.

"We feel the issue has been appropriately addressed, and it’s time to move on, especially as we are trying to concentrate all our efforts on keeping our elderly and disabled tenants safe from the coronavirus."

Police response

Adam J. B. Lane. / Corey Flint Photography.
“My conclusion ... is that I/we will not and cannot stop people from stealing, but I/we can convince the AHA Board to stop allowing stolen carts from being harbored within AHA properties for any reason. This, in turn, will discourage residents from stealing them."

-- J. Stephen Ward

As to the police, Ward provided a copy of his April 4 letter to Chief Juliann Flaherty, which he said was ignored. YourArlington asked her about this, and Capt. Richard Flynn responded May 4:

"I had a conversation with Chief Flaherty today regarding this matter and was informed it had previously been addressed. I was directed to have a conversation with John Griffin and our commanding officer of the Criminal Investigation Bureau."

Griffin provided background and the position of AHA, he wrote. "Our CIB had looked into this and contacted each of the affected businesses in the community in an effort to understand their opinion on the matter and offer any assistance we could provide.

"Each business had knowledge of the practice that sometimes their shopping carts were removed from the property to help transport purchases to several AHA locations within the community. None of the businesses involved (Stop & Shop, Whole Foods, Walgreen's, CVS) saw this as a crime, nor did they have any interest in seeking complaints against individuals who made use of the shopping carts in this way.

"Each organization commented that there was a system in place to have the carts returned and thanked Mr. Griffin for his efforts in contacting those who pick up the carts and transport them back to the businesses."

Praises Stop & Shop

As to businesses that help return carts, Ward commented: "Stop & Shop [on Mass. Ave.] is the only store with a 'do not steal carts' sign, and they have a retrieval service ... most cooperative."

Apart from officials, YourArlington sought a view of Ward's mission from a longtime tenant. Pam Hauser has been president of the tenants' council 7 1/2 years at Winslow Towers, which opened in 1970.

She is the daughter of Robert Hauser, the first executive director of the AHA, serving from 1949 to 1975, when he died. About Ward, she does not mince words, citing his ongoing complaints about carts and saying he has "harassed" store managers. "He's an idiot," she said.

Her comments reflected the AHA compromise that Griffin reported -- that the authority bought its own carts for each building, so resident would not have to "borrow" them from stores.

To Ward, the matter remains an open question. He cites a study from the Food Marketing Institute saying that annually more than 2 million shopping carts are stolen nationally each year at a cost topping $160 million

Ward's conclusion

Ward told YourArlington: "My conclusion ... is that I/we will not and cannot stop people from stealing, but I/we can convince the AHA Board and administration to stop allowing stolen carts from being harbored/concealed within AHA properties for any reason. This, in turn, will discourage residents from stealing them."

Amid many emails, which included a wealth of photos of shopping carts in various AHA locations, Ward seemed to relent, if only for a moment:

"I am NOT opposed to shopping carts within the AHA properties, as there are legitimate uses for them by many of the elderly and disabled residents. Since I started my efforts, the AHA has purchased 5 carts for the intended use of the residents. That number has proven to be sufficient for the purposes that they are intended.

"That has not stopped some residents from stealing them and bringing them into the building. When I moved into Winslow Towers two years ago there were 15 carts in the lobby, carts in the hallway of all 13 floors, and some held inside the apartment of a few residents. They were in the power room, the laundry room and elevators. The AHA administration tried to manage where they were but that effort prove futile. The 'inmates' where running the 'asylum.'

"I was raised to believe that stealing of anything from anyone for any reason was a serious violation. I still believe that.

"We/I will never stop people from stealing ... we/I can stop the AHA from harboring stolen shopping carts within the property they administer. The executive director and the board of directors of the AHA need to adjust their moral compass and stop this practice on taxpayer-subsidized properties ....

"The carts that are bought and paid for by the AHA are all that is necessary to fulfill the needs of the residents. Because someone is elderly or disabled does not justify theft of anything for any reason. I am 78 and [receive] 10-percent veteran's disability and would never think of stealing for any reason."

This news feature was published Tuesday, June 23, 2020.