Ty Zablocki just moved into a Salem apartment after spending several weeks homeless. The day after, he was back at work at the Northwest Hub, where he’s learning how to fix up bikes.
He’ll be doing everything he can to keep that apartment, which his boss at Northwest Hub, Director Kirk Seyfert, helped him secure. He grinned talking about having a home.
“That’s big time. That whole relief, the weight on your shoulders is gone. It makes you realize how grateful and thankful you are just to be able to wake up every day, and have a chance to change your situation,” he said.
Zablocki is the latest person who came to Northwest Hub in need, and will come out of it with job skills and a support network to help him stabilize. Helping people who are in transition periods has been a tenant of the nonprofit since its foundation, and Northwest Hub leaders plan to expand the organization’s vocational training in the years to come.
Northwest Hub started in 2014 as an outreach program working exclusively with people on parole. Seyfert would collect and refurbish bikes, and distribute bike locks and helmets. He said the word got out in 2014, partly due to an article in the Statesman Journal, and homeless service providers started referring people to them for their bike needs.
In collaboration with the Salem Leadership Foundation, they converted the basement of Evergreen Church into a bike shop. The next year, they moved into their own storefront at 1230 Broadway St. N.E.
Since then they’ve been in a constant state of trying to keep up with demand. In the past few years, they’ve added a mobile farmworker support program based in north Marion County, and have distributed hundreds of bikes to refugees settling in Salem using a voucher program.
“There’s a lot of demographics that, just because of their kind of transitional situation or due to other factors, private vehicle ownership or reliance on public transit is not really a viable option,” Seyfert said.
At the city’s volunteer award ceremony on Oct. 16, the nonprofit received the Mayor’s Merit award for its community and environmental impact. Last year, they recycled and reused over 44,000 pounds of steel and aluminum.
This year, they’ve given away 743 free packages of lights, locks and helmets and offered nearly $50,000 in income-based discounts. Over 300 farmworkers were given bikes and bike gear, and they gave out 215 helmets to kids.
The back of the shop has room upon room of hanging bicycles, wheels, parts and workstations where staff do repairs. In the fall and winter, they bring in around six bikes a day from recycling and transfer stations that otherwise would have been thrown away, and see three to four times that amount during the summer months.
Financing has been a balancing act, Seyfert said. Early in their work, it became clear the operation was destined to close if it kept giving away everything completely free.
When they were still in the basement shop that first year, someone came in and sparked an idea. The man could only pay $40 for an estimated $200 repair, but was willing to work. That turned into the current system, where they charge income-based services with a $20 credit per volunteer hour. Cheaper items, like $1 tubes for tires, they’ll give away for free if someone needs it.
“The idea was: No income, we had programs and services. Low income, we had income-based services. And then for the general public, those that could afford to pay for services and help us do what we do,” Seyfert said.
The Northwest Hub does short-term transitional job training, including an intensive program for young adults with employment barriers, who are referred by the homeless outreach shelter transition program and the Oregon Youth Authority which manages young people on probation.
Next year, they plan to expand job training by offering it to anyone on SNAP benefits through a partnership with the Oregon Department of Human Services.
Zablocki had been playing semi-pro basketball for the Wenatchee Bighorns up in Washington and came back to Salem, where he had previously lived when he first moved to the West Coast in 2021. He doesn’t have much by way of family ties, but felt he had a better support network in Salem than in Washington.
Now, he’s planning to use his camera and videography skills to revamp the services’ social media presence as part of the marketing team.
Several of their regular staff came from referrals themselves, and said the opportunity changed their lives.
Meet three of them below.
In 2019, Dani Diggins had 80 hours of community service to do. She could choose between the Humane Society and Northwest Hub, and she chose bikes.
She came in every day for a month to burn through the hours, avoiding talking to other people by staying in the back. When her hours were up, she kept coming back, volunteering through the pandemic.
“I’ve come a long, long way,” she said. Now, she has no problem answering the phone or talking about customer’s bike issues. She especially likes getting to know the homeless people who come in.
Diggins is known to tinker and experiment, and specializes in the hub’s reclamation program. Ever since she was a kid, she’d annoy her mom by tearing things apart to rebuild them. She said she can work on a bike for a whole month, take it all apart, and remember where each piece went when it’s time to put it back together.
She built her first bike from the frame up, and she’s currently trying to build a hybrid electric and gas motor bike, which she believes will be the only one of its kind in Salem once she gets it going.
“People think (bicycles are) easy to work on, they’re not. There’s a lot of things that are just this, just that, and everybody’s got their own way of doing things. And I’ve learned a lot,” she said.
In March, she’ll be three years sober. She’s built a support network at the shop, which she credited with helping her get there.
“It’s definitely been an integral part of my life,” she said.
She has a grandson who she brings bikes to. He loves monster trucks, and she’s plotting to build him a toy one that can drive.
Up in the office, Joshua Bowen sat in front of multiple screens to manage the back-end, order forms and databases for the Hub. On a typical workday, he checks purchase emails, order numbers and calculates prices.
It’s his first job, from a referral by WorkSource Oregon. He’s been there for about nine months.
“It feels good. It feels like our voices are being heard. Especially for someone with a disability, like mine, I’m totally blind, it’s hard to find employment even today,” he said.
The unemployment rate for blind people is around 70%, according to the National Federation of the Blind, an advocacy group.
For Bowen, a job means he has a source of income and a place to regularly get out and be social. He said he was grateful for the chance to prove himself.
In the past, he said no one has taken him seriously as an applicant. He’s spent countless hours on job sites or in interviews where he was dismissed as soon as they saw his cane.
“Or they ask really crazy questions like ‘How do you use a computer?’ It’s the 21st century, man. I would be in royal pain without a computer,” he said.
“People need to realize that just because we’re blind or deaf doesn’t mean you’re not wanting to work. Companies need to give us a chance. Don’t look at us for what our disability is, look at us for what we can do,” he said.
Northwest Hub’s lead mechanic, Chris McMurtrey, is soft spoken. His coworkers, who described him as “Salem’s finest mechanic” with an “amazing story,” were eager to prompt him to put his tools down from his current project to share it.
“He was like the lead service tech at like, probably the nicest, busiest bike shop in Oregon,” said one. “River City, in Portland” another chimed in. “How long were you there?”
“A long time. Thirteen years?” McMurtrey said. The store opened in 1995, and he joined the next year.
He was familiar with bike mechanics long before then, though. Growing up in Hillsboro, he and his siblings started racing BMX around age 10. Then, his favorite BMX bike shop went up for sale.
“Over dinner, I told my dad that it was for sale, and he bought it. Kind of to support us, our racing,” he said. Throughout his teenage years, being on the shop team meant their fees could be covered as write-offs.
Another shop moved into town, offering the same brands the family shop did, and put their store out of business. He ended up working at the new shop for several years.
Ten years ago, he moved to Salem. A series of life events left him homeless and unable to keep a job. He worked a little at Santiam Bikes, and had met Seyfert before when Northwest Hub was still in the church basement.
After a longtime interest in the nonprofit, he decided to walk in. He tentatively pushed on the doors at the Northwest Hub’s new Broadway Street location, whose windows were still covered in paper.
“I just walked in, and Kirk was up in the window up there,” he said, pointing to the office overlooking the sales floor. “He looks out, and he’s like ‘Chris.’ and I’m like “Kirk.’ So then I had a place.”
McMurtrey volunteered part-time for over six months, when the store was nothing much, “just a pile of broken bikes.” He’d come in the morning, fix a few bikes, sell them, and repeat.
He ended up getting a grant from the Employment Department that paid his first year’s wages. The paycheck got him a little apartment off of Liberty Street.
Because of his bouts with homelessness, he hadn’t felt up to the task of parenting his three-year-old daughter, who was in foster care. Now with a job and apartment, he was able to get custody.
“It was just me and her,” he said.
It’s hard for him to look back on it, he said, taking a moment to take some deep breaths through tears. Lost in retelling his life story, he didn’t realize the other staff in the work area had been listening in.
“You’re going to make me cry,” Diggins said. McMurtrey joked that it’s why he refuses to speak at fundraising events.
His daughter is eleven now. Over a decade, he’s seen a lot of success stories and a lot of people still in cycles of struggling. He’s looking forward to meeting the next ones who walk through the door.
“I just really want to see this place succeed,” he said. “I know it helps a lot of people in various ways. Just having a place to go is really important.”
Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.
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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.