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SHIFTING GEARS: Donnie, a Gateway client, with the bike he earned and learned to fix while participating in the Sopo program.

Brandon English

SHIFTING GEARS: Donnie, a Gateway client, with the bike he earned and learned to fix while participating in the Sopo program.

Help homeless Atlantans earn free bikes 

A new mobile trailer could help Sopo Bicycle Cooperative get folks a low-cost transit option

On a recent Saturday afternoon, longtime Atlanta resident Craig Marsland ventured to Sopo Bicycle Cooperative in Grant Park for a free weekly class. Since being released from prison, he's struggled to find permanent housing and has lacked an easy, affordable way to travel around the city to find potential employment, attend medical appointments, and do other routine tasks. By attending the class and lending a helping hand around the shop, he hopes to earn a free bike.

Volunteer instructor Robert Rands this week is teaching Marsland and nearly a dozen other men, who are working with homelessness resource provider the Gateway Center, about several kinds of bicycle brakes, the basics of how they work, and different repair methods. Once they complete the lessons, attendees can practice what they've learned on their two-wheelers or help others troubleshoot repairs.

Since 2005, Sopo has served Atlanta cyclists as a community resource with access to bike parts, tools, classes, and support from trained volunteers. For several years, the group operated out of the East Atlanta Village parking lot behind Blue Frog Cantina and Tomatillos. In 2012, the cooperative started to rent a larger, permanent workspace in Grant Park near the intersection of Boulevard and Woodward Avenue.

The Grant Park organization now resells donated two-wheelers for $20-$50 that can be fixed up inside the shop. The bike repair space opens its doors to the public three times per week — Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7-10 p.m. and Saturdays from 2-6 p.m. — and employs one part-time manager plus a legion of volunteers. The nonprofit receives most of its funding from grants and suggested donations.

Last fall, Sopo boardmember Patrick Davis, who has volunteered with the organization for roughly five years, reached out to Gateway about a potential partnership to offer homeless people training and a chance to earn a free bike through volunteerism.

"It's a low-cost and efficient way for people to be able to commute to jobs or job interviews," says Jason Tatum, Gateway's public relations director. "They already know how to ride a bike. Sopo is teaching them how to care for a bike."

Through Creative Loafing's ongoing Do Good campaign, a series of grassroots partnerships with local organizations, we'll help Sopo and Gateway raise money through online fundraising to continue the program. Do Good partner the Home Depot Foundation will match donations dollar for dollar up to $2,500.

Beyond MARTA, which donates discount fare cards to the homeless resource centers, Tatum says Sopo is Gateway's only partnering organization that offers a low-cost transit resource to its clients. The bike cooperative also provides numerous other benefits including skills training and confidence building. Plus, biking gives homeless men and women a way to live a healthier lifestyle and improve the environment, he says.

Sopo would like to purchase a new mobile bike repair trailer that would allow it to bring its valuable services directly to shelters, schools, and more. Since most homeless people don't have cars, Davis says the project would allow the cooperative to increase its outreach at Gateway. People who might have wanted to earn a bike but were previously unable to travel to Sopo on foot or on a bus would have a much easier time participating.

At minimum, Tatum thinks the mobile repair trailer could help Sopo double or triple the number of homeless residents it currently serves. The small investment would ultimately lead to a more effective way to help homeless people break the cycle of poverty.

"Something that could take a whole day out of someone's life [becomes] a much more efficient experience," Tatum says. "They have the energy and overall good spirit needed to end their homelessness instead of spending all their emotional and physical energy going across town. This mobile unit can be one more step in that direction."

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