Homeless in Vancouver: What’s the meaning of this shopping cart?

Even more-or-less empty, the humble shopping cart is still full of meaning, or irony—or both.

To almost anyone, the cart I saw Saturday night sitting abandoned on a Fairview street corner would mean poverty and homelessness.

The irony, of course, is that shopping carts aren’t supposed to be about poverty. Quite the opposite; they’re designed to help people with money buy things.

And the fact is the abandoned shopping cart still does represent consumerism and middle-class affluence. It means all that and more. That’s because the shopping cart as a symbol has achieved a kind of super iconic status allowing it to stand for the whole Western way of life.

And there’s still room for a sack of potatoes on the bottom.

Talk about overloading your cart

The North American steel-wire nesting shopping cart  is so much a feature of post-World War Two consumerism—of supermarkets and suburbs—that it has become one of the most enduring symbols of the Western style of living.

It symbolizes both our affluence and our poverty. In real life and even on the Internet, it has become one of the symbols for “having”.

Inside the context of a shopping environment, where it belongs, it represents the “haves”. Outside. on a street corner, say Spruce Street and 8th Avenue, it represents the “have-nots”.

Proving once again that context is everything.

And if for no other reason than it’s out of context—putting aside the connotation of homelessness—the residents of this neighbourhood will see this abandoned cart as an eyesore.

It is not intrinsically ugly, it’s inappropriate-ugly: it doesn’t belong where it is; like a car on blocks in a front yard or Spandex bicycle shorts on a lot of people.

How it “hurts” to see homelessness

Another reason people might want to see this abandoned shopping cart gone is the stress-inducing cognitive dissonance it embodies—the inherent mental stress of conflicting ideas and desires that people living in cities have to contend with every day.

It might be more to the point for me to say “homeless people” in place of “abandoned shopping cart” because an abandoned shopping cart with plastic bags and garbage in the basket says “homeless person” loud and clear, much the way police cars mean police officers.

The sight of a homeless person with a shopping cart, or a person with a shopping cart who “presents” as homeless, triggers a kaleidoscope of conflicting ideas and emotions: social inequity, the welfare state, the gap between rich and poor, contempt and pity, compassion and revulsion, empathy and fear.…

The list will be endlessly different for different people, and perhaps changing over time—the commonality being the duality of engendered feelings.

People want to help us, kick us, ignore us, engage us, and avoid us all at the same time. Ouch. That’s gotta hurt!

Until contradictory ideas are reconciled, we just keep turning them over and over in our minds, whether we realize it or not. This induces stress which causes real hurtful emotional discomfort.

One way to reconcile contradictory ideas and reduce the associated stress is to make the things that cause the bad feelings go away.

Hence I really believe a major driver behind policies to get homeless people off the street may be that the very sight of us makes non-homeless people so uncomfortable.

For the moment, let’s just say that if Monday morning that grotty shopping cart is gone, I’m sure all the people living in the surrounding condos will breathe a sigh of relief for any number of reasons.

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