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‘Chop shop’ legislation targets homeless people in SF

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An assortment of bicycle parts rest on a fence near a homeless encampment a 16th and Shotwell streets in San Francisco in March 6. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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My whole family rides bikes. And just like many other San Franciscans, my kids and I rely on our bikes to get to school and work. When folks get their bikes stolen, it creates hardship, especially for those who cannot afford a replacement. This issue deserves a serious response, but unfortunately it is not getting one from City Hall.

Instead of trying solutions that have worked in other jurisdictions, such as focusing on prevention and the market for stolen bikes, some of our local politicians are using the issue to play on voter’s frustrations and anger about not only bike theft but also tent encampments, combining the two issues into one piece of an “all show and no go” legislation. If passed, this legislation will allow police to confiscate bike parts from San Francisco residents without any probable cause. They only need to have five or more bike parts and be in the unfortunate position of living outdoors.

This bill was pulled out of a dusty desk drawer and brought forward without buy-in from key stakeholders, such as the San Francisco Bike Coalition and the Coalition on Homelessness, both of which oppose the bill. Homeless people already see their property confiscated regularly, and there are countless laws on the books to address everything from sidewalk obstruction to theft. According to a letter on its website, the Bike Coalition doesn’t see this as addressing the theft issue. Another law is simply not the answer.

When we see destitute people on the streets, it’s easy to assume their bicycle parts and bicycles are stolen. The reality is that recycling bike parts is one of the few alternative economic venues for impoverished people to make a living. Destitute people receive donated bike parts, find parts in dumpsters and various locations, trade parts and are able to use their bike skills to repair bikes, build bikes and sell them for life sustaining income. Wealth often equates to waste, and reusing bicycles is an excellent way to cut down on that waste and ensure bicycle access to low-income people. Of course, some unhoused people engage in theft, as do some housed community members, but most of this economy is honest recycling. This legislation codifies the presumption that any unhoused person engaging in this element of the economy is guilty of theft.

Under this legislation, once the property is confiscated, homeless people must pay the impound fees, even if they are able to go through the process to prove the property is theirs. Homeless people often suffer from disabilities, including mental health issues that impact their functioning, and this would make it an unfair hardship for the same rightful owners to regain their property. Travel, access to information and inability to carry belongings all create significant barriers to regaining rightful property in this proposed ordinance. This legislation will not only result in debt but loss of property from rightful owners, simply because of their economic status.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors is set to vote on a piece of legislation that will not do anything to deter theft but only punish indigent people for daring to scrape out a living in this affluent city. This legislation paints a powerful image of the destitute worker as a thief, without ever bothering to prove their guilt. Please contact your supervisor and let them know you don’t think this bill will work and that you want real solutions to bike theft.

Jennifer Friedenbach is the executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

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