By James Robinson
Cambridge — Under different circumstances, the vintage French Motobecane bicycle suspended in the air of Quad Bikes’s basement workshop might have ended up being sold on eBay for a few hundred dollars, rather than languishing in disrepair.
But a second chance waits.
Tonight, LIFT Bike Project volunteers are fixing the bicycle, in an effort to provide transport to homeless and low-income members of the Cambridge community. The bike project sources bicycles for repair from the Cambridge Department of Public Works. Quad Bikes, an employee-owned, not-for-profit bike workshop stationed slightly north of Harvard Square, provides the workshop space. In operation for 18 months, the project has recently opened up for Monday night volunteering sessions.
Four bikes are undergoing repairs. Quad Bikes manager Dave Tucker, 26, attacks the frame of another bicycle with rusted bearings, dressed in a grease-stained apron. The volunteers are watched over by project organizer Liz Powers. Powers, 22, has no mechanical expertise, contributing instead structure, youth and enthusiasm to the project. She is happy with how the volunteer element of the project, now in its second week, is going.
On a recent night, there were two in attendance. Tonight there are 15, Powers says.
The bike project is the brainchild of Powers, a recent Harvard graduate, born and raised in Wellesley, Mass. Powers began volunteering for LIFT four years ago to meet a course requirement for her sociology major. LIFT, formed in 1998, is a support network stretching across five states for the homeless and low income.
The idea for the Bike Project developed slowly as the issue of transport emerged repeatedly as a barrier to employment, and the project is her contribution to the services of LIFT in Cambridge.
“Not being able to afford to take the T every day is a stupid reason to be unemployed,” Powers said in a follow up interview over a cup of tea. “People cannot walk an hour and a half to and from work.”
Powers took matters into her own hands in the summer of 2009, supported by a Steiner Public Service Fellowship, buying abandoned bikes from whoever was willing to sell them. “I’d be biking all across town to pick them up, going down into basements of people I didn’t know, it probably wasn’t the safest,” she said, laughing.
An ally emerged in Dave Tucker at Quad Bikes, who contributed the store’s network of volunteer labor. The LIFT Bike Project was a natural fit for Quad Bikes, Tucker said during an afternoon in the workshop. Each bike fixed represents a labor investment of up to five hours, and on average about twenty dollars in new parts. The most common issues are broken chains, missing brake and gear cables, and rust.
Five bikes were handed out in October of 2009, and ten in the spring of the 2010. In October last year, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced his ‘Roll it Forward’ campaign, seeking to collect, repair and donate 1,000 bikes to Boston neighborhoods. Motivated by this, Powers hopes to hand out as many as 40 refurbished bikes to those in need in 2011.
Applicants for the bikes, through the LIFT office in Cambridge, must demonstrate need, submit a personal budget, undergo safety training and volunteer for ten hours.
Richard Bucci, 55, a former construction worker and limousine driver, was homeless for 18 months after battling what he called “a history of drug and alcohol abuse.” LIFT assisted him in reestablishing himself, helping him into public housing in May 2010, and with his legal and medical problems.
Bucci received a bike in April last year. “Thank God for organizations like this,” Bucci said in a thick Boston accent, sitting in the Cambridge LIFT office wearing an eye patch from a recent hockey injury.
It has given Bucci a freedom he didn’t expect to have again. “Many people my age who were homeless in the shelter sort of give up,” Bucci said.
Powers is off to Scotland in August to do her master’s degree at the University of Edinburgh. She hopes the new volunteer evenings will, in part, help the bike project survive her absence.
The volunteers, many of who had never met before tonight, work at a steady pace underwritten by beer and pizza provided by Powers.
Jay Constantinou, 27, is a portly chemical engineer “taking some me time” before starting graduate school. A longtime volunteer at Quad Bikes, he thinks it is a great way to spend a Monday evening.
“First time you come here, you get hooked,” Constantinou says.