Homeless Camps and Bike Theft

Many have noted that there is a correlation between homeless camps and bike theft. Not that all homeless or all homeless camps are involved with bike theft — but that a significant proportion of homeless camps contain what may be euphemistically described as “bike carcasses”, and function as “chop shops”.

I want to present some case stories and evidence about this problem, which, along with other problems associated with homeless camps, is too often swept under the rug both by city governments and homeless advocates, who want to portray the homeless as nothing but “economic victims” of gentrification and the economy, or as elderly or disabled or otherwise in need of nothing but compassion and help. The truth is more complicated — and there’s a need for a study about the amount of crime associated with homeless and homeless camps, as the degree of crime related to homeless camps is quite large.

Here are some stories about bike theft and homeless camps.

Let’s begin with one of the most compelling stories, a recent one (update on this article) — CBS news in LA found through their investigation that a whopping 32% of all Go Bikes in that city have been stolen, and it appears that “homeless people” (read, criminals) are often behind these thefts.  The CBS team found several of these bikes in homeless camps, often spray painted to try to conceal their identity as belonging to the Go Bike program.

Begin with a situation in Seattle, reported here: https://old.reddit.com/r/SeattleWA/comments/8enrcn/ive_had_three_bikes_stolen_off_of_my_property_in/

Seattle homeless camp chop shop

where a man living not too far from a homeless camp, had 3 of his bikes stolen. It outraged him that he could easily see dozens of “bike carcasses” at the nearby homeless camp, but though he called the city multiple times to have them check it out, they essentially refused to do so, citing procedural obstacles.

In Orange County in 2017, as reported in this blog and this article, and this one, over 1000 bicycles were found in a tunnel in the Santa Ana Homeless camp, a huge camp over a mile long that was finally cleared out in 2018.

Bikes in tunnel Santa Ana River trail

The blog article on this matter points out that another homeless camp is being “given sanctuary” from searches, which may well support criminal activity. Really BAD idea to keep law enforcement out of homeless camps!

OC Public Works crew members were performing clean-up maintenance on the flood control property (removing debris and trash). A crew member saw a pile of dirt and observed a small section of carpet on the ground. When the carpet was removed, the crew member discovered a small wood cover and, upon lifting the wood, discovered it led to wood steps to the underground compartment. Whomever built the compartment used wood for the steps and for support beams in the underground compartment. It’s approximately a 5-10 ft square area and about 6 ft high. It was discovered on flood control property on the back-side of the levee (opposite side from the cement channel).”

The discovery of the bunker and enormous cache of stolen bikes raises the question of what might be found in the much larger homeless encampment by Angel Stadium, which stretches for approximately two miles from Ball Road south to the I-5 freeway. Inhabitants of that encampment currently enjoy the sanctuary from enforcement actions thanks to the settlement agreement imposed by federal District Court Judge David O. Carter.

The discovery of this cache also, as stated, give the lie to the claim that the criminals are only a small number of the homeless: “the discovieries at the Fountain Valley encampment further erode claims by homeless advocates that criminals are only a small portion of the population of the SART homeless encampments. ”

Meanwhile, in Portland Oregon, as stated in this article, a drug arrest at a homeless camp led to the discovery of more than $5000 in stolen bike parts.

And in Olympia, WA, as stated in this article, stolen bikes and parts were found at a homeless camp.
Homeless camp bike Olympia 1 (2)

Detectives said they recovered numerous stolen bicycles and bike parts at one of the homeless encampments in the city – marking one of the latest trends in this crime spree.

This article explains that stolen bikes have been found in homeless camps on a consistent basis, meaning, it’s a regular feature of homeless camps. In that sense, many “homeless individuals” (who are more accurately described as criminals who happen to be homeless)  should be viewed as a blight on a community and indeed as social/criminal predators, not as vulnerable people in need of community services and support.  See my other article  here https://homelessquandary.wordpress.com/2019/02/13/the-homeless-criminals/   where I argue that, in contrast to the mantra we often hear from some about “criminalizing the homeless”, I believe the reverse is actually more of a problem: we are “homeless-izing the criminals” or depicting criminals as homeless, and calling “homeless camps” what are really criminal camps.

This sense of the inevitability of a connection between homeless camps and stolen bikes is also expressed in this article, where a Long Beach Councilwoman said  that ““Every time you go to an encampment, or a place where homeless gather, you are just inundated with bike parts,” she said. “It’s clear that the bike parts are being used as currency to purchase drugs.”  This councilwoman was smarter than most, and actually sought to create laws that would make it more difficult to engage in sales of stolen bikes:

Price’s proposal offers a possible method of getting around that problem by prohibiting activities that may go along with a bicycle theft. It may not be immediately provable that someone selling a cache of bicycles on a Long Beach sidewalk is trying to make a profit off of stolen goods, but Price’s request would make it illegal for someone to sell bicycles or bike parts—stolen or not—on public grounds.

“It deters bike theft for sure, because in order to have a chop shop, you need to steal bikes,” Price said.

Price is asking the City Attorney’s office to draft an ordinance that may eventually be voted into law.

Here’s what she would like to see the city’s legal team incorporate into a new law:

  • A ban on selling five or more bicycles on public property. Additional prohibitions would apply to such actions as putting together, taking apart, distributing or storing more than five bicycles in this manner.
  • Extending the above-prohibited activities to any bicycle frame missing its gears or cables, or with its brake cables cut. The ban would also apply to anyone with three or more bicycles that have missing parts, as well as anyone trying to deal, store or distribute five or more bicycle parts.
  • City support for legal bicycle repair spots.
  • Exemptions for people working for a bona fide business or who repairing a single bicycle while its owner is present.

In the Portland area, the Springwater Corridor in particular is reknowned for bike thefts and chop shops in homeless camps, as described here. On one random day, police took a ride along the 21 mile bike path, and found multiple stolen bikes and bike stashes during their ride.

In Honolulu Hawaii, police seized many stolen bikes from homeless camps, as reported here.  

A homeless camp in Vancouver is full of bike parts, and a local cyclist accused camp members of stealing bikes.

IN Fairview near Anchorage, homeless camps are typically full of bike parts, as reported here.

IN San Diego, CA, a major cleanup of a homeless camp led to the discovery of bike thieves stripping bicycles, as reported here.

A major cleanup of a trash-filled, one-acre homeless encampment began Wednesday morning along the San Diego River, where thieves were stripping hundreds of stolen bicycles for recycling…..Police estimated there were parts to 500 bicycles stacked and strewn throughout the site.

Homeless camp San Diego bikes

In Calgary, Canada, as described here

Homeless camp Calgary stolen bike (2), irate residents had had quite enough when they discovered their own stolen bikes in a nearby homeless camp, and when police would not respond to their calls for enforcement on this issue. SO they took matters into their own hands and went and retrieved their own property which had been stolen by the homeless campers.

Journalists in San Francisco went to investigate about where stolen bikes end up. They discovered multiple homeless camps under freeways that were processing these stolen bikes, as reported here. See the video about it here: https://abc7news.com/video/embed/?pid=731968

Under the freeway, there are dozens of chop shops and homeless encampments where bikes and parts are piled up….During the investigation, the I-Team watched people rifle through bags, fumble with piles of cellphones and witnessed people buying, selling and doing drugs right out in the open.

To see how easy it is to get a bike from one of these camps, the I-Team took hidden cameras to the scene to buy a bike at a good deal. Within minutes the I-Team got an offer.

One of the men at the chop shop told us we could take the bike for a ride. After we returned, the man tried to close the deal by asking how much we felt like paying. We offered the man $60 and walked away with a bike worth nearly $500….one homeless man said, “We’re hustling to survive out there because obviously we’re homeless and we try to make it on the streets.”

Pulouoleola told the I-Team he turns 15 bikes a day and will sell a $200 wheel for $40. He knows most of the bikes he buys and sells are stolen.

Another article reported a bike thief living at a homeless camp in Northampton MA.

Back across the country again, police in Venice Beach CA continually find homeless camps full of stolen bikes and bike parts, as reported here. You can see some of the stolen bikes in this photo:
Homeless venice bike theft

And Police in Petaluma, CA are overwhelmed by the homeless camps full of stolen bikes in that city, as reported here.

Petaluma police say homeless encampments have become a bigger problem in the small city than they have been in 20 years.

In a recent police survey, officers found 34 active illegal encampments in the city, and police said these encampments pose a threat to public health and safety and the environment.

Police said the encampments are a haven for illegal activity, including violations related to narcotics, alcohol, weapons, stolen property, sexual assault, theft and vandalism.Officers arrested 28-year-old Ervin Osman from Spokane, Washington, on active warrants and found him to be in the possession of a stolen bicycle.

The $1,300 Cannondale bike had been stolen from a store on English Street in Petaluma. Police reunited the bike with its owner and Osman was booked into the county jail.

In Oakland, CA, a bike theft was the motive in a homeless camp killing, as described here.

A bike chop shop was discovered at a Culver City homeless camp, as described here. Culver city homeless camp bikes

IN another story, a stolen bike was located at a SEattle area homeless camp.

This article describes how Santa Cruz officials recovered stolen bikes at homeless camps in that city.

Unsanctioned camps are often dangerous places, quite full of crime, even dangerous for area residents to bicycle through, as one Santa Rosa resident discovered, when he was beat up by homeless campers as he tried to bike along a city bike path. In the article about this, it’s stated that police made 15 to 20 arrests at that camp in a period of just 1.5 weeks. This makes it abundantly clear that this camp, and doubtless many like it, are more accurately described as camps of criminals, rather than as camps of “homeless” persons.

In this article about homeless people in Anchorage, which pointedly questions whether these people are homeless or homesteaders, it’s pointed out that these homeless/homesteaders tend to consider the public property where they are located as their private property, and make a living from theft:

There is a belligerence in the folks that are living here. If you walk into a camp, the general response is ‘What are you doing on my property?'” Rhoades said.

In addition to living in the park illegally, “they steal bikes from surrounding areas and chop them up or sell the components, or they make one bike that’s resalable for a good amount. Clothing, coffee makers, computers – there’s just an endless supply of things people have gotten from other people’s homes,” Rhoades said.

This article takes a more in-depth look at how homeless camps function as bicycle chop shops. It includes this video which shows people chopping up bikes in broad daylight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=AXEyLBq4pNM

Note in that video, that the men processing the stolen bikes demand that the man making the video go away, and they say “we do not want to be recorded.”  In other words, they are basically saying, “Just let us commit crimes here and do our illegal stuff and go away and leave us alone.”  Well if you don’t want to be recorded, then  quit engaging in criminal activities and stealing bikes!   My only regret is that it wasn’t an undercover police officer recording them, but only an ordinary citizen.

Kingpin of BIke thieves:

Kingpin of bike thieves

People arrested and numerous stolen items found in a Carpinteria homeless camp: https://www.keyt.com/news/crime/two-suspects-arrested-and-numerous-stolen-items-found-in-a-carpinteria-homeless-camp/758756701

Here’s a blog about where stolen bikes go…conclusion…they go to homeless camps, like one at 7th and Market, or one in the bushes at Golden Gate Park.

After striking out at Seventh and Market, I figured it was time to investigate the chop shops Veysey mentioned. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC) reports bicycle chop shops operate all over the city. Thieves strip bikes because the parts (unlike the frames) don’t have serial numbers and can’t be traced as stolen once they are removed from a bike. The parts can be sold individually or put on another stolen bike to disguise it, hence the Frankenstein bikes that show up at the Bike Hut.

When Veysey told me about bicycle chop shops, I pictured something from a ’70s cop movie — a warehouse in an industrial district populated with burly men wielding blowtorches. But the trail led me somewhere else entirely: Golden Gate Park.

SFBC officials said they had received reports from a gardener about chop shops in the park. When I called Maggie Cleveland, a Recreation and Park Department employee responsible for cleaning up the park, she said they do exist and would show me what she thought was one if I threw on a pair of gloves, grabbed a trash bag, and joined one of her cleanup crews. I agreed.

Shortly before 8 a.m. on a foggy, chilly morning, the crew and I picked up mechanical grabbers and industrial-size trash bags and then climbed a steep hill near 25th Avenue and Fulton Street on the Richmond District side of the park. We plunged into a large camp in the middle of a hollowed-out grove of acacia bushes.

The camp looked like a sidewalk after an eviction. Books and papers vomited from the mouth of a tent. Rain-soaked junk littered the camp, including a golf bag filled with oars, an algebra textbook, a telescope, and a portable toilet. A hypodermic needle stuck in a stump like a dart and a gaudy brass chandelier swung from a branch. Amid the clutter was one constant: bicycles and their parts.

A half dozen bikes leaned against bushes in various states of repair. There were piles of tires and gears scattered around. The noise of the crew had awoken the residents of the camp. A man and two women sprung up and immediately tried to grab things as the crew stuffed the contents of the camp into trash bags. They grew more and more agitated as two dozen bags were filled.

The former GIlman St Underpass homeless camp in Berkeley was full of bike parts, likely stolen….as reported here. Bike parts Gilman st camp

Sometimes it’s even possible to see the bike chop shops just by sitting at your home computer, driving along on Google Earth,as I did when I found this bike chop shop homeless camp at 6th and Alice streets in downtown Oakland. The evidence had been preserved by the Google Earth drive by! Google Earth homeless chop shop Oakland 2 (2)Google Earth homeless chop shop Oakland 3 (2)


In conclusion, instead of blindly lumping all those who happen to be homeless into the same category of people who we view as “economic refugees” from a heartless campitalist system, I think a much better and more accurate way of looking at homelessness involves recognizing the sharp differences between types of homeless people and reasons why people end up in this circumstance.

We also should begin being more outspoken about the fact that a significant number of those we call “homeless” are simply criminals, who are quite likely homeless as a result of their criminal activity, and/or have become criminals to support a serious substance abuse problem. To refer to these as “homeless” is really missing the point — it would be like referring to those engaging in child sex abuse as part of the group of “people with unusual hobbies.” That people are criminals is a far more pertinent issue and concern than the fact that they dont’ have a standard residence, and in fact having criminals living in the bushes in the local city park is quite possibly a much bigger problem than if those same criminals lived in a house in that city.

Even RVs and other vehicles can be used as “chop shops”

Bus chop shop


Videos on bike chop shops and undercover stings on bike theft:

As well, often it seems that we collectively have forgotten that criminals often tend to live on the outskirts of society, as individuals or in roaming bands.

This YouTube video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w2HE3TxJ79M makes the excellent point that quite a number of people living in RVs and “off the grid” around the nation, are doing that mainly because they are criminals and have been rejected by mainstream society. These people make life dangerous for the ordinary folk (like the creator of this video) who are wanting to go nomadic and live an RV life to experience the freedom associated with that lifestyle. The woman who made this video had such serious problems with criminals and people harassing her and making her feel unsafe when she “went nomadic”, that she gave up the RV life because of this, and made this video to articulate just this point and these dangers.

More videos on homeless camps and bike theft in Austin, where there is quite a problem with this:

News articles: Stolen bikes and homeless camps