Bikes N’ Roses tries to get by despite $276,000 state grant being frozen
It is just past 3:30 on a Monday afternoon. Students are just getting out of school, the evening rush about to begin. It is a particularly warm day out, the first of the year. With the shine of the sun accompanying the thawing temperatures, people are out and about.
Chicago is more ready for spring than usual after a bitterly cold winter defined by subzero wind chills and snow. Yet many in the neighborhoods worry about safety. After all, the old mantra is that crime rises with the temperature. The lack of jobs and resources often leaves young people in these communities with nothing positive to do. This is no doubt a concern for the residents of Belmont Cragin, an impoverished neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side.
But hidden away on a side street just off Armitage Avenue in the predominantly-Hispanic neighborhood is an unimposing building that one could easily pass by without paying any attention. Yet inside lays a bike shop where several high school students spend their afternoons fixing up old bikes and learning life lessons along the way.
It is an oasis of hope in a community where resources are often sparse. The atmosphere is lively, the kids are having fun. The shop, called Bikes ‘N Roses, functions as a youth training program that teaches impoverished neighborhood kids life skills along with the hands-on skills of fixing bikes.
The DePaulia last visited the bike shop, run by DePaul student David Pohlad, 22, in November when it was operating out of Prosser High School. In January, it moved to it’s current storefront. While more expensive than working out of a high school, Pohlad said it allows for him to serve more students.
The move was made possible by a $276,000 state grant, which was split between Bikes N’ Roses and what used to be Four Star Bikes, the shop’s sister store in Albany Park.
“So almost all the kids here were getting paid at one point,” Pohlad said. “And I would do payroll and bring their checks every Friday. It was a cool program.”
But that all changed a few weeks into the new place when he received a text from the program director at the Albany Park shop telling him to “call, it’s urgent.”
“I was actually teaching at the time, so it was like a super earnest, happy day. I was like let’s not learn about bikes today and let’s just talk about some real life stuff. And so the kids were all feeling good and I was like okay, go work for a bit while I take this call,” Pohlad said.
“I stepped outside and Oscar said that all of our funding has been completely frozen by Rauner, we are to cease operations immediately,” he said. “So I find out at maybe 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday, and by 7 p.m., I was laying all of them off. We were standing in a circle and I was like, guys I don’t know what’s happening, but I can’t pay you anymore.”
The freeze was the result of an executive order Gov. Bruce Rauner signed on his first day in office which halted all discretionary spending approved after Nov. 1, 2014, essentially reversing decisions made during the lame duck period by outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn, whom he defeated in a bitter electoral contest.
“Years of bad decisions have put Illinois in a financial crisis,” Rauner said in a press release announcing the cuts. “Today we start the process of putting our state back on the road to fiscal stability by reviewing agency spending, stopping contracts and grants, and selling excess state property.”
The governor ran on “shaking up Springfield, and bringing back Illinois” after years of poor decisions contributed to the state having the worst-funded state pension system in the country, the lowest credit rating of any state, and a structural deficit eating away at the state’s budget.
“The budget deficit has been driven by the fact that Illinois has been spending more than it takes in in sustainable revenues,” said DePaul professor and municipal finance expert Marty Luby. “Spending has increased in many categories greater than the inflation rate and the tax system that Illinois uses to raise revenues does not reflect changes in the economy – so there has been a mismatch between spending growth and revenue growth – the sunsetting of the 2011 income tax only exacerbated the deficit but even with that income tax increase in place, Illinois still faced a sizeable budget deficit and has for years.”
According to Luby, in order for Illinois to get its fiscal house in order, it will likely have to be in the three forms: reduced spending, increased taxes and fees, and the modernization of government. He added that those who rely on state aid, such as universities and non-profits like Bikes N’ Roses, will be hit hard.
“Many of these entities rely heavily on state funding and will be hit hard,” he said. “To the extent these entities can, they will pass along this decrease in state funding to their ‘customers’ in the form of higher ‘prices’ – so for higher education, these cuts may necessitate increases in tuition.”
Yet for programs like Bikes N’ Roses, it is not as easy to pass on costs. While the lights have been kept on by Communities United, the umbrella organization for the two bike shops, the students have not been paid in a couple of months. Pohlad himself has had to take a significant cut. The lease on the building goes through September, but it is unknown what the future holds.
While Pohlad believes that the store could ultimately be sustainable if they became a full-fledged retail operation, that is not his goal.
“I think the ultimate goal of the program is not necessarily to be sustainable, but to help and serve as many kids as possible,” Pohlad said.
The kids who work in the shop are all from the neighborhood and are 200 percent below the poverty line, which was the basis for qualifying for the grant.
“This is fun time for them. I can’t remember the last time I told someone to start working harder,” Pohlad said. “They all just kind of come in and know what they want to work on. None of them come and start trouble, I’ve never had a single tool stolen in a year; they’re all really good kids.”
Lizeth Romero, a junior at Prosser, has been a part of the program since last summer.
“I didn’t really have anything to do in the summer, so I thought it was a good opportunity to try something new,” she said.
Romero did not know how to ride a bike before working at the shop, but now does and comes in “pretty much every day.” She hopes to study medicine after she graduates.
For Kevin Martinez, on the other hand, working on bikes is a hobby for him, which made the job perfect. Plus, it is a place that makes him “feel comfortable.”
“Like if I feel down, there’s people around to cheer me up,” Martinez said. “What keeps me distracted from being upset is working on bikes.”
Martinez, who wants to either go to culinary school or become a firefighter when he graduates, said his friend stopped coming to the shop after the grant was cut, but he keeps coming to prove to Pohlad that he’s not the type of person to give up.
“I still have hope that we’ll get our money back,” he said. “We got to at least try.”
The two shops together have launched a campaign in response to the cut, attempting to raise awareness with the public, lobby lawmakers in Springfield, and seeking out donations. A GoFundMe page was launched to solicit donations with a set goal of raising $70,000. While a fraction of what the grant was, every bit counts, according to Pohlad. In a little under three weeks, about $5,000 has been raised.
Pohlad is working on a grant for a summer program that he hopes will allow the kids to be paid again. And the shop will be open to the public soon.
“Bikes N’ Roses in Albany Park has been open for three years, and they’re a functioning bike shop. It can be done,” he said.
The state budget will likely be finished this summer, but there it is unclear if funding will be restored. “Every dollar that we spend unnecessarily in government cannot be used to help our most vulnerable citizens,” Rauner added in the statement. “We must take every step necessary to ensure Illinois becomes the most compassionate and competitive state in the nation.”
With or without compassion, the shop in Belmont Cragin will try to get by.