Take a walk through one of your local parks where some of the homeless hang out. I’m betting you’ll see a quite a collection of bicycles. Many aren’t going to be in very nice condition, quite possibly a lot like their owners. Quite a number of them would probably fall into the ‘at least once stolen’ category. This is not to say you won’t encounter a nice bike or two. I speak from experience on all categories.
Yes, I have been one of those people sitting in the local park, watching the world go by, wondering how I lost my place on societies Ferris wheel, until I got to the point where I realized, homeless doesn’t need to mean down and out. Yes, one can be homeless, sleeping in front of old abandoned businesses, and still get up and contribute to society on a daily basis.
In the time that I’ve been a member of the homeless community, I have had a couple of bicycles that were in bad condition, usually right after having had a bicycle stolen. Bicycle theft in many cities is rampant, and unfortunately, the bike thieves seem to enjoy targeting the homeless community. It’s easy to steal a bicycle while someone’s sleeping next to it, I guess. I do prefer to have a nice bicycle; it’s a taste I acquired many years ago. I have gone from being a fan of high end bikes, to a national level competitive cyclist, to the owner of trash bikes. At one point in my life, while living in a small studio apartment, I had an even dozen bicycles, mostly high end Italian hand built bikes. When you have a DeRosa hanging from your living room wall, with another DeRosa in the kitchen, when a duo of Colnagos in one place or another, it’s very easy to become jaded when it comes to bicycle quality. These days, I’m down to one bike, that I try to tell people its trash (so as not to give any bike thief ideas).
Stolen bikes in that group of two wheeled machines in the park? Oh yes. I’ve even had one of my own bikes recovered by a friend that found someone sitting next to in a park. The friend told the thief, “I know who that belongs to, I’m taking it, you can let it go with no harm done, or you can’t contest the issue, get a beating, and then be without the bike”. Needless to say, I got the bike back later in the day.
I’ve seen very high end bikes come past me, usually in the hand of one of the drug addicts. Two instances come to mind…. A strung out junkie rolled up to me on a Litespeed, asking what I thought of the bike. I told him, “nice stolen bike, take it back where you got it from”. On another occasion, saw a very nice classic Masi roll past. Mentioned it to a friend, and they told me on one day ‘oh I know who that was, it wasn’t stolen’, then a few days later heard back from the same guy ‘know that Masi, it had been stolen’. Yeah, bike thieves are scum. Bike thieves that prey on homeless bikes is even more repugnant, at least to me.
This might lead to the question: Why is the bicycle per capita with the homeless community so high? Mobility to put it simply. When you’re regularly on the go, be it to simply find a bathroom, or to find a meal, rolling on two wheels is a lot easier than two feet. Sometimes, having a bicycle is a hindrance. Security is one of the reasons. Is it safe to lock up your bike where you’re going? Beyond any doubt, the most important accessories for the homeless person with a bicycle is the bike lock. Again, it’s the bike thieves that make things difficult.
Next thing that one could wonder about: What about bicycle maintenance and repair? In this city, as long as I’ve been living on the street, there’s always been a shop that’s very sensitive to the needs of the homeless and their bikes. The past few years, bike co-ops have started to spring up with more frequency. One shop that comes to mind tries to supply bikes to homeless persons, once they have put in some sweat equity. For maintenance of bicycles, this city also has a fairly new bicycle co-op, where homeless persons can come in, and for very little, perform repairs on their bikes, or be taught how to do repairs.
About me, you ask? My name is Walt. I live in San Jose, CA. I’ve obviously got some experience with bicycles. These days, I pay my bills by busking. I’m a street musician, playing in various cities in the area. When I’m not out making music, or sitting at a computer terminal typing away, I’m one of the volunteers at the San Jose Bike Clinic. A bicycle coop shop. We are a fiscally sponsored project of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, which makes it possible for us to teach people how to work on their bikes, or to allow them, with minor donations, use our tools and work stands, which we are very grateful for the Bicycle Coalitions support. I have been a member of the homeless community for a bit over eight years, having come from the tech sector, where I worked as an analytical systems engineer form some twenty-five years. I don’t ride much anymore, as my legs don’t allow it, but I will always have a spot in my brain when it comes to cycling and bicycling related issues.
P.S. I use the term ‘homeless’, but the term that would suite many much better. ‘Outdoor people’ In San Jose there is a group called “Hope For Outdoor People”. I believe it was their founder that coined the phrase ‘Outdoor people’. I really don’t mind being referred to as homeless. Many people are surprised when they find out that I am homeless, as I try to keep myself presentable. Call me an ‘Outdoor person’ or ‘homeless’.