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Good Karma Bikes: breaking the cycle of unemployment and homelessness

Getting around sprawling Santa Clara County is a trick for anyone, but for those without housing, getting to and from services and opportunities is even tougher. That’s where Good Karma Bikes comes in. On Saturdays, the volunteer and job-training cycling clinic and store does free repairs on bikes brought in by homeless folks.

Although the clinic doesn’t open until 10 a.m., people begin lining up at around 8. Even in the cold, they’ll stand for two hours across the street from the warehouse Good Karma calls home, just west of downtown San Jose near the Midtown neighborhood.

“They are homeless helpers,” said Christian Kolb, as he waited to check his bike into the clinic. He’s been on the streets since his father died two years ago and he was forced to move from the home they shared.

“They seem to recognize that if you are homeless you need your bike to get around,” Kolb said. “If someone won’t hire you because you are this or that at least you’ve got your bike so you can keep trying.”

His bike needs a tune-up so he can keep riding from Cupertino to San Jose three times a week, to access services such as resume help and dental care.

There are others in line with bent wheels, dropped chains and broken derailleurs. No matter how much the work may cost to perform, Good Karma will do it for free.

Inside the warehouse, the free clinic’s work is done by volunteers. About a third of the mechanics are homeless themselves, being trained on bike repair and given job experience for references, according to founder and CEO Jim Gardner.

Another portion of the mechanics are people in recovery, working for a small stipend and experience. All of this is funded through donations, as well as used-bike sales and repairs by trained mechanics for the general public.

Craig Steller manages the Saturday morning clinic, but he knows what it’s like to be on the outside.

He met Gardner before the non-profit had the large warehouse space.

“I had been living at (the shelter) InnVision, and that first weekend I was there I saw them come up and start fixing bikes. I offered to help,” Steller said.

He had just been released from prison and knew nothing about bike repair. But Gardner and his crew trained Steller.

Today, two years later, Steller rents a room, works as consultant and runs the Saturday clinic as a volunteer.

More than 7,500 homeless people live in Santa Clara County, with nearly 5,000 living in San Jose, according to the most recent count.

Gardner and his team believe that with a good ride and maybe some job training, many of those on the streets could see their life shift into a different gear.

“Most people just want a chance,” Gardner said. “That’s what most people want, a chance to prove their worth.”

Crosscurrents San Jose