Down the elevator into the basement of an Old Town housing project, around three corners and under the fluorescent lights of one of the six beige rooms labeled “storage,” Mark Sando was walking in a more or less constant loop around the part of the floor that wasn’t carpeted two feet deep in broken bicycles.
“We don’t need to loosen this enough to slide this up and down, we only need to loosen it enough to rotate the handlebars to the right alignment,” he told the ex-con leaning over one of the room’s four workstations, who nodded in understanding.
Moments later, Sando was on to the next of the six Central City Concern tenants who are in the first cohort of a new program that will give them a free bicycle, two weeks of training in basic bike repairs and indefinite access to the tools in this basement shop.
“It seemed too good to be true, to learn the bike and then get a bike,” said Brody Woudstra, one of the students in Thursday evening’s session. “I had a bike that I built myself, kind of sloppily. I went to prison for 30 months, and when I got out three weeks ago, my bike had been sold.”
The three-week-old program, called Chain Reaction, is a co-op between the transitional housing agency Central City Concern and Portland’s 10-year-old bike-repair nonprofit Bikes for Humanity. It started, Bikes for Humanity founder and longtime leader Steven Kung explained Thursday, from Central City Concern’s attempt to make the most of an eternal problem: what to do with the 60 to 80 bicycles that former tenants left abandoned, often in disrepair, in their various buildings’ bike rooms?
So Kung and his collaborators pitched the housing agency on a plan to get those bikes back into use — this time in the hands of people who would know the ins and outs of maintenance.
“We provide the instruction and the volunteers and help people earn the bikes,” said Kung, who like almost everyone at Bikes for Humanity is a volunteer himself. “When they start commuting and the bike breaks down for whatever reason, they can continue.”
To be eligible for the program, a Central City Concern tenant must get a referral from their case worker in the agency’s Employment Access Center. They then commit to at least two weeks of learning: three hours a night for four nights a week.
They select a bike frame, check its serial number against a stolen-bikes database, and as long as it’s never been reported as stolen they start using Bikes for Humanity’s tools to start building each bike back up.
Guiding the participants through the process Thursday were Sando, himself a onetime graduate of a different Bikes for Humanity repair class, and volunteers Frank Wong and Holly Kvalheim.
Participants help one another out, too.
“I tell everybody I know about the course,” said Pat Patterson, a man in bermuda shorts and wire glasses who was halfway through his bike. “I’m coming off the streets, through addiction, staying clean and sober. … It helps me feel productive, contributing.”
Patterson said he hopes to use the bike for commuting.
“If I’m living downtown, I may as well get a job that’s close enough to not have to ride the bus,” he said, adding that the bike will be a big source of recreation, too. He rattles through trips he’d like to take: exploring Forest Park, riding the 77 to Troutdale and relaxing near the Sandy River.
Three weeks in, Patterson is an evangelist.
“I have 50 guys I live with, and I’ve got a bunch of fliers and I’ve been handing them out,” he said. “If they don’t come, they don’t come. I’m the one with the free bike.”
Pay-it-forward enthusiasm like Patterson’s is the fuel that’s powered the all-volunteer Bikes for Humanity for the last decade, said Kung.
“As long as you teach somebody for free, then they will teach for free,” he said. “Once you build the momentum, then it’s kind of contagious.”
Kung, 51, ran Bikes for Humanity out of his house for eight years. Last year it outgrew the building and moved into a storefront at 34th and Powell. It’s also creating satellite co-ops like this one and a forthcoming program at Grant High School. Kung said last year’s budget was $17,000, most of which went to rent, and next year’s is $40,000 thanks to revenue from the Grant contract and anticipated sales and service from the bike shop.
Kung, meanwhile, is planning to step back from Bikes for Humanity after 10 years at its helm. He retired two years ago from a job in the high-tech industry and is planning a 10-year bike trip around the world.
“It’s time for me to leave this to others,” said Kung.
Wong, one of the two people supporting Sando during Thursday night’s session, is one of many volunteers carrying Kung’s work forward. He said he’d taken one of Bikes for Humanity’s eight-week mechanics classes and was teaching others so he could keep reinforcing the new skills in his own brain.
“I’m a senior citizen; I’m a slow learner,” said Wong. He described himself as a “bike beginner” who had owned bikes “on and off” over the years but never really understood them.
“Now I’m getting a little more serious,” Wong said. “Spring-weather riding.”
Allen Roberts, the student working with Wong, was putting the finishing touches on his new bike.
“This is my sixth day,” Roberts said proudly, greasing the seatpost. “I’m already done. This is the last step.”
“This is my fifth bike, and I’ve never known how to fix them,” he added. “But now I do.”
I asked the young Central City Concern tenant where he’d ride the bike first. He didn’t hesitate.
“Home,” he said.