Real Leaders

Building Bikes For Social Mobility

Bicycles are a manifestation of what John Dengler has been trying to do with the homeless of Tampa, Florida for years. The city suffers from the second-highest rate of homelessness after Los Angeles, mainly due to temperate winters that allow those on the streets to survive year-round.

“In our society, if people don’t have monetary value, they don’t have value,” says Dengler, who was on a mission to find gainful employment for those who sometimes found a part-time job across town, but still needed a way of getting across a city of 2,500 square miles.

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As Dengler traveled around Tampa, he began noticing something strange. Thousands of abandoned bicycles – in police impounds, chained to city buses, around colleges, condos and apartment blocks. “Literally hundreds of thousands,” he says. “You couldn’t collect them all if you tried; just another example of our wasteful society.”

Seeing homeless people the city didn’t seem to value, and bikes that no one cared for, Dengler decided to put them together to create something new – Well Built Bikes. The organization teaches people on the streets how to build and recondition bicycles to sell at a fraction of a new one. Early challenges included by-laws preventing the homeless from gathering for too long in one place, complaints from neighbors wanting to keep undesirable elements away from gentrified suburbs and frequent run-ins with the law, that once saw Dengler getting beaten up.

The barrier to entry is low: a bag of cheap hand tools and parts that are easily sourced from discarded bikes. The organization prefers to bring in bikes that need some attention as it forces people to work. A sense of belonging and purpose has rippled through the Tampa homeless community. The Earn-a-Bike program earns a destitute person a free bike after putting in 10 hours of maintenance work at a Well Built repair shop.

“One part of our mission is to get homeless people to build their own bikes to use as personal transport; it transforms lives,” says Dengler. “It’s become a game-changer for those seeking work. When you own reliable transport you suddenly have access to job opportunities across the city, no longer constrained by the distance you can walk.” One guy enjoyed his newfound freedom so much he even cycled across the state to visit his son in prison, a distance of a few hundred miles!

You’d think local bike shops would feel threatened by thousands of cheap bikes flooding the market, but Dengler notes that the cheapest bike in a commercial bike shop is still way more than their most expensive bike and doesn’t pose any threat. “We operate somewhere between a bike shop and a pawn shop,” he muses.

There’s a common attitude that views for-profit ventures differently to charities. For some reason, people feel they must stop giving when a venture turns from non-profit to profit. This misguided way of thinking must change, according to Dengler. “Putting food or money into someone’s hands is good, but how about exploring a more lasting solution. Buying a sandwich for a homeless guy is great, but he’ll be hungry again in four hours and has to wait for you to reappear. There’s an unhealthy relationship between rich and poor in the world, yet I think they actually need each other desperately. Poor people have a unique vantage point on how these systems work and rich people have stuff poor people can use. Look at Well Built Bikes – we started a business from rich people’s junk.”

The sense of pride, belonging and purpose felt by those involved in Well Built Bikes can best be illustrated by a story Dengler recently heard. A homeless guy involved in the program came across a middle-class girl on an expensive bike that had broken down. He took out his bike tools and had her back on the road in minutes. It must have been the last thing she expected and helped in some small way to bridge the divide between the haves and the have nots.

Dengler is on a mission to get these two worlds to talk. He believes this is how innovation will emerge and the healing process between disparate communities will begin. “Watching the homeless standing proudly with their bikes, saying ‘I built this, I rode here,’ is incredibly empowering. People become alive again. This potential has always been inside; they just needed someone to believe in them.”

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