POSTED ON JUNE 25, 2008:
Two Wheels to Stand On
How a "bike kitchen" is helping the city's homeless get back on their feet
Free Wheelin'. "With the arena coming up, and all the gentrification initiatives they're wanting to do in downtown, I think this is a really great solution to one of the great 'problems' people perceive, which is the transient population," Barger noted.
Most of us have cars and, though they might not all be as sexy, sporty or as nice as the Joneses, they still afford us the independence we need to live our lives, go to work and stand on our own two feet (rising gas prices notwithstanding).
And, we tend to take that independence for granted most of the time, except when the inevitable wear and tear or a mechanical malfunction grounds us for a few days until the repair shop restores our autonomy.
For many of Tulsa's homeless, though, lack of transportation is all that stands between them and self-sufficiency.
"That's a big issue for the homeless," said Mack Haltom, associate director of Tulsa's Day Center for the Homeless, about the role of transportation in rehabilitation.
"There's plenty of work for folks, but city buses don't always get them where the jobs are," he added.
That's why Haltom and many of his colleagues sing the praises of the Tulsa Wheelmen bicycle club's Community Cycling Project.
"It meant the difference between working and not working, in many cases," said Gloria Dialectic, a Day Center caseworker.
As CCP coordinator Ren Barger explained, the program provides bicycles, including all the necessary equipment and a full day's worth of safety training, with an entire year's worth of service thrown in--all absolutely free of charge.
"The idea is, people are referred through agencies like United Way or the Day Center for the Homeless. If they can apply and take a class from a League of American Bicyclists-certified instructor on their 'Introduction to Vehicular Cycling'-class, and they pass, they're gifted the bike that fits them, and it's in really good working order," she said.
"It really was a wonderful community gift, because people who are homeless, who would not have money for a bicycle are able to put their lives together better with that support," said Dialectic.
She emphasized, though, that it's not just the bicycle that makes it such a boon, but also the training that comes with it.
"If they got money for a bicycle, by hook or by crook, it would be just a bicycle, without any training or helmet or other safeguards," she explained.
"But, having a bicycle meant that they could go to work, they could go at times when there was no bus service, for example, on a Sunday. Or, if there was bus service taking them close to their business, it might not be close enough, but they could take their bicycle along and attach it to the bus, and then bicycle the rest of the way. So, it was a real asset for my clients," Dialectic added.
"The success rate is phenomenal," concurred Barger.
"People will write back and say, 'Thank you so much--I'm returning the bike to you because I don't need it anymore, because I'm working now and have a home and I just bought a car,'" she elaborated.
She had a stack of such letters in-hand from formerly homeless beneficiaries of the CCP.
The bicycles are donated, Barger said, "in various states of repair and disrepair," and restored by volunteer mechanics.
About 40 formerly homeless people have received bicycles since the program's inception in 2004, she said.
It's the brainchild of Sandra Crisp, who was the Wheelmen's advocacy director at the time.
"I suggested it and the board of directors of the Wheelmen liked the idea, and they started us off with $1,000, and it's really the Wheelmen's project," said Crisp.
She said she started it "on a small scale," providing bikes to residents of the Exodus House "and had a good response to that."
Eventually, INCOG director Richard Brierre found out about the program and provided a biannual matching grant of $1,000.
"It kind of took off from there. Somebody told the Day Center about it, and Gloria Dialectic contacted me about her clients who needed bikes in order to have jobs," Crisp recounted.
Soon after that, the Tulsa Mental Health Association learned about it and also began referring clients.
"These were people trying to be self-sufficient and, in many cases, couldn't drive," she continued.
Crisp said Tom Brown of Tom's Bicycles "was a big contributor in terms of expertise, assistance and helping us get parts and supplies we needed," as was Adam Vanderburg of Lee's Bicycles.
But, the program has been dormant for the past year, after an injury forced Crisp's retirement.
"It was starting to really grow, and then I just had to quit, because I wasn't able to do it anymore," she said.
She handed the reins to Ren Barger of Lee's Bicycles, whom she met through their mutual involvement in the Tulsa Tough cycling festival.
But, as Barger explained, she doesn't have the space or the volunteer manpower at the moment to get the program going with its previous vigor, as Crisp had been coordinating the program out of her own garage during its initial years of operation.
"She handled the whole operation. She's a certified mechanic, and she would really just go home and work on the bikes in her garage. She's also a certified league instructor," said Barger.
"This is totally Sandra's baby," she added.
Barger currently has about 60 donated bicycles she's been tinkering with, which are stored downtown in space donated by Michael Sager in the Blue Dome district.
But, the space doesn't have electricity or water, and her agreement with Sager is temporary and informal.
"He's using it as a storage facility, but he's interested in renting it as a commercial property if he gets an opportunity," Barger said.
So, he could potentially be dialing your number right now to tell you that he's had an offer and wants to rent it out, so you need to move all your bikes ASAP?
"Yeah. He's a friend of my family, and I've made various attempts to use space of his before, because he has a big heart, but the problem is, he says he has 12 people asking him but he only has 10 yeses to give out," she answered.
But, Barger hopes to resurrect the dormant operation into something even greater than it was before--into a "bike kitchen" like those seen in San Francisco or Chicago or other big cities.
A "bike kitchen" is a cooperative, do-it-yourself, community bike shop--called a "kitchen" because the repair and tinkering that ensues within is likened to cooking by bicycle enthusiasts like Barger.
As well as providing a cultural nexus for what she hopes would be a bicycle renaissance in Tulsa, the hoped-for bike kitchen would also be a base of operations for the Community Cycling Project, where the bikes would be repaired and opportunities for community service and involvement would abound.
"With the arena coming up, and all the gentrification initiatives they're wanting to do in downtown, I think this is a really great solution to one of the great 'problems' people perceive, which is the transient population," Barger noted.
But, without adequate donated space and volunteer hours from qualified mechanics and instructors, it's all just a big bicycle wheel in the sky.Barger is confident, however, that if she somehow manages to raise awareness of the program, generous Tulsans will rally.
First of all, she's hoping some kind soul will donate some space.
"The bigger the better, anywhere in Tulsa that's centrally-located or downtown would be ideal. I keep thinking that there's all of these warehouses sitting around downtown that are totally vacant, which we could at least be using if we could get a six-month contract or something," she said.
Barger said she has about $6,000 stored up in private donations through the Wheelmen and matching INCOG grants, "but it would be best to save that just for funding the program itself."
She said she also needs certified bicycle mechanics and instructors who are willing to donate their time.
"Also, if people have bikes that have been sitting in their garages for years, as long as they're not trashed, they're welcome to donate them. It is a tax-deductible donation," she added.
Prospective benefactors can contact Barger at email@example.com.
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