A police crackdown on bike “chop shops” in the Mission District on Monday netted just one suspect: a homeless man who insisted the bikes and parts police loaded into their vehicle had not been stolen.
Moreover, he added, he was a friend of police shooting victim Luis Gongora Pat and like Gongora Pat, he said, he fixed the bikes of homeless people.
“I do bike repair for poor people,” he said, adding that he gets clothes, food, and other items in exchange for his services, though “the majority of the time [people] don’t give me shit.”
In a back-and-forth between the homeless man and Sergeant Matt Friedman on Monday, Friedman expressed disbelief that the dozens of bike parts he had lifted from the man’s tent were not stolen.
“If you’re an avid bike rider, why do you accept this crap?” Friedman said, motioning at the bike parts scattered around them.
“If I weren’t here fixing people’s flats, half these people would go out and steal tires,” the homeless man replied.
“You got like 30 bike tires and rims here — you don’t think any of that stuff’s stolen?” Friedman continued.
“I keep it clean,” said the man, shrugging.
Another homeless man on the block, who also wished to remain anonymous, said he often sees people riding up to the man to get their bikes fixed.
“People do bring him parts and stuff, like ‘Here’s a flat tire,’” he said. “He’ll stop to help them.”
Others on the block declined to talk about the bike repair man, though one woman rode up on her bike as he was fixing his now-dismantled tent and asked him if he was alright.
The encounter came after Sergeant Friedman, who runs the Twitter account @SFPDBikeTheft, announced on Sunday night that he would be patrolling the Mission District to enforce against “chop shops” in the encampments where police believe stolen bikes are disassembled and sold.
“We will be rolling around the Mission tomorrow dealing w/ chop shops starting at 1200,” his tweet read. “Tweet at us if u see something u want us 2 checkout.”
Friedman received several responses, most of which centered on the northeast corner of the Mission District, an area of industrial buildings where homeless encampments often occupy entire blocks. Bike parts are often seen strewn around several encampments in the area.
But Friedman and his partner, Officer Gary Cheng, made just one stop on their tour of the neighborhood. There, they arrested the homeless suspect near 1 p.m. on Shotwell Street between 18th and 19th streets — the same block where in April San Francisco police officers shot and killed Gongora Pat, a homeless man who also lived on the block.
The officers looked through the man’s tent for bike parts, handcuffed him, and loaded all they could onto their truck. Sitting on the sidewalk, the suspect talked about his friendship with Gongora Pat, the homeless man who was shot and killed down the block.
“He was a bike mechanic too,” said the handcuffed suspect. “He taught me some tricks he knew on bikes, and I taught him a few tricks myself.”
The homeless suspect said that he has seen an increase in customers since Gongora Pat’s death, since Spanish speakers who used to go to Gongora Pat now come to him.
The homeless suspect denied he had any stolen bike parts as both officers loaded tires, frames, pedals, and other bike scraps onto their police truck. He said he gets parts from the garbage piles of bike shops, or gets them from other homeless people as “hand-me-downs.”
In fact, he added, he has not stolen a bike in the last six years and runs an informal repair shop for those who cannot afford to go to bike shops. He has been homeless for the last 10 years but has run the repair shop from the block for the last year or so, he said.
Bigger Social Problem
A 2013 city report put the number of reported stolen bikes in San Francisco at 817 for 2012, a 70 percent increase since 2006. Because bike thefts are underreported, however, the report stated that the number was likely closer to 4,085 and estimated that the value of the stolen bikes was $4.6 million for that year.
It’s rare that bikes recovered by the police return to their owners, the report continued. Of 864 stolen bikes recovered by the police in 2012, just 142 — or 16.4 percent — were returned, the report said. It laid the blame on the inability of police officers to find a bike’s proper owners, either because owners do not try to get their bikes back from the police or do not know their bikes’ serial numbers.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, an advocacy group for cyclists, said that though the problem of bike theft is pervasive, chop shops in homeless encampments are just one part of a “hairy” issue with roots in the housing crisis.
“Chop shops are just the most visible symptom of a much larger societal problem,” said Chris Cassidy, a spokesperson for the coalition. “You need to bear in mind the effects of poverty, cost of living, homelessness, and these are things much bigger than the real focus of the San Francisco Bike Coalition.”
To that end, Cassidy said the coalition emphasizes preventing bike theft rather than enforcing against it, adding that the group is “not lobbying for police action or inaction” and does not have a stance on police efforts against chop shops.
He did point to data that cyclists are often people of color and lower-income, and said homeless people in particular may have few options for fixing their bicycles other than the informal shops run by others on the street.
“We need to recognize that not everyone can go into every single bike shop in town and afford the things that they need,” he said. “The cost of living is squeezing a lot of people in our city.”
Cited and Released
The homeless man on Shotwell Street was released from his handcuffs after about an hour and given a notice to appear in court. He faces three misdemeanor violations for “possession of a bike frame with the serial number removed, possession of a burglary tool, and illegal lodging,” according to Sergeant Mike Andraychak, a department spokesperson.
The misdemeanor charges carry up to a year in county jail each or a fine, he said.
The homeless man said that for his part, Officer Friedman was courteous. Friedman asked the man if his handcuffs were too tight and told him the procedure for retrieving the bike parts they were bagging and tagging. After the man’s bike parts had been loaded onto the police truck, Friedman even bought him a burrito.