John Benson, called “Cripple A” by his clients, repairs a wheelchair in his Emeryville shop. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

On a recent morning, Benjamin Royer was doing donuts in his electric wheelchair. He spun round and round and round in the empty Emeryville parking lot outside the Easy Does It wheelchair repair shop, giggling loudly the whole time.

“I have to admit I’ve had this thing up in the air for a second or two,” he said, though he did not offer to demonstrate.

Royer, who is experiencing homelessness and lives in Berkeley, had not come to the repair shop just to show off his maneuvers. He had dropped in to fix the wheels on a walker that belonged to another homeless friend of his. He’d clearly been to the shop enough times to know his way around, plucking the right parts from the shelves and digging up a basket that could hold the Street Spirit newspapers his friend sells. He screwed it onto the walker and admired his handiwork.

“She’s going to hit the floor when she sees this thing,” said Royer.

“That’s what you’re trying to prevent!” joked John Benson, who runs the shop with another part-time staffer and some volunteers.

Benson has been providing repairs and loaner chairs to Berkeley’s disabled population for years. He is one of the many long-time employees of Easy Does It, a city-supported nonprofit that provides emergency services to Berkeley residents with physical disabilities. Launched by disability rights advocates in 1994, the organization took off in 1998, when Berkeley’s Measure E created a property improvements tax to fund emergency assistance for severely physically disabled residents. Advocates of the tax easily earned the support of the police and fire departments, who were overwhelmed by emergency calls from people who found themselves stranded with a flat wheelchair tire or unable to get into bed when their attendant was a no-show. Since then, Easy Does It has offered emergency attendant care, accessible transportation and, a bit more recently, equipment repair.

Now the organization averages 3,000 calls a year, from a variety of seniors, students and others. The homeless clientele, although still a fraction of the total Easy Does It client base, is growing “exponentially,” said Benson. Most of the clients experiencing homelessness request his services, and he responds to about seven of their calls each week.

Benjamin Royer leaves the Easy Does It repair shop with a walker he has fixed up for his friend. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Benjamin Royer, who does not have a permanent home, got his electric wheelchair from John Benson at Easy Does It, so he returns the favor by volunteering in the shop. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

For several years, Benson ran the repair shop out of a small space he rented in the old Macaulay Foundry building in West Berkeley. When he and other tenants were forced out after a fire brought safety hazards to light, it turned out to be blessing in disguise for Benson. He had built up a “mountain” of donated wheelchair parts and pieces, which are now organized on neat, if jam-packed, shelves in the spacious Harlan Street shop. There is a fabrication space under a loft Benson built, and rows of rubber wheels, battery packs and cushions. In the center of the space are a number of second-hand wheelchairs, many donated by people who have upgraded models or whose family members have died, leaving their chairs behind.

But Benson spends most of his time outside the shop. In the morning he checks in with his dispatcher, who tells him who has called in to request new bolts, or who is stuck on such-and-such sidewalk because their tires pooped out. Benson loads up his minivan and responds to about five or six calls a day. Some of his clients call him “Cripple-A,” a play on AAA — because they call him up when they have a roadside emergency.

Benson began working as an attendant with Easy Does It while studying at UC Berkeley in the 1980s, until he caught a client who fell out of their chair, sustaining a severe injury that prevented him from doing attendant work any longer. After working as a driver with Easy Does It for awhile, Benson launched the repair program. He had grown up with a mother who used a wheelchair, and around car culture in the Rust Belt, so he already knew a thing or two about mechanics.

Benson, who has a wild beard and moonlights as a musician, is the kind of guy who knows everyone. He is close with the activists whose grassroots disability rights work put Berkeley at the front of the movement, and some are still clients of his. But the demographics of Berkeley and the clientele of Easy Does It, have changed dramatically over the years. Aging Baby Boomers mean attendants are responding to more calls from seniors, said Nikki Brown-Booker, the executive director of Easy Does It.

For Benson, “There’s been a huge shift. A lot of those [activists] have passed away, and the homeless population has increased significantly.” Preliminary findings from the most recent count show Berkeley’s homeless population at 972, up 16% since 2015 and more than 50% since 2009. And Benson’s homeless clients have unique needs and circumstances.

“They live outdoors, people steal their stuff, and some have never used a chair before,” he said. A lot of people who could use a wheelchair or other assistive equipment “fall through the cracks.”

A few months ago, for example, he met a woman who said she and her four-year-old granddaughter had come from Las Vegas after the city gave them a one-way bus ticket to Berkeley. (A Las Vegas spokesperson did not immediately reply to a request for confirmation). The pair was living in the bushes behind a fraternity, and couldn’t easily leave the area because the grand-mother had trouble walking. Benson brought her an electric scooter.

“Now she brings her granddaughter to daycare. She’s able to ride between her knees on the scooter,” he said.

Royer said he was using a manual chair when Benson approached him. Because of his disability, “sometimes I get too tired to lift a finger, literally,” Royer said. “This thing’s got the power that’s necessary to get around,” he said of the electric wheelchair Benson gave him, though he has to spend a lot of time at the public library to charge it.

John Benson tests out a potential chair for Kaye Lamaestra’s (right) friend, while her fiancée Alex Noonan gives her input. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
John Benson and Kaye Lamaestra joke around in the shop. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Easy Does It clients pay a $15 hourly copay for the subsidized attendant, transportation and repair services, and $15 to pick up or drop off loaner equipment, though Benson said he does not collect fees from homeless clients.

Many clients who do have financial means say they depend on the repair program too.

“Most of the wheelchair repair shops are disappearing,” said a long-time Berkeley resident and Easy Does It client Tim, who did not want to give his last name. “When that started happening, John started doing this.”

Kaye Lamaestra, a youth arts therapist, said she has a “bourgie” chair — the same kind Stephen Hawking uses. But ‘“when one part breaks, the whole thing breaks,” she said.

“The process of ordering tiny little parts takes so long, it’s incredible to be able to come here,” said Alex Noonan, Lamaestra’s fiancée. However, all the parts they can find in the shop are somewhat, if not quite, used. Benson said he has undergone the training required to sell new parts from high-end brands, but in order to become certified to do so, the companies would require him to stop selling used parts as well — hardly a feasible proposition for a program fueled by donations.

Lamaestra and Noonan had come to the shop the same day as Royer, and for the same reason: to pick up something for a friend in need. An able-bodied friend of Lamaestra’s had just gotten in a terrible accident that nearly paralyzed him from the waist down, and he needed his first chair.

The packed shelves in John Benson’s Emeryville repair shop. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Lamaestra and Royer are two of the many clients who come volunteer in the shop to offer their thanks.

Surveying the shop that afternoon, Lamaestra began to devise ways she could help out this summer.

“You need some plants,” she said, eyeing the shelves stocked with drab metal and rubber. “Some ivy would look good.”

On a roll against the odds

Benson subscribes to the independent living ethos developed by students and activists with disabilities in Berkeley in the 1960s and 1970s. (Berkeley’s renowned Center for Independent Living has been replicated in countless other places across the country.) The approach respects the self-determination of people with disabilities and assumes they and their disabled peers know what kind of support they need to live comfortably and be part of a community.

“This organization was created by disabled people, and they really pushed the idea that the medical movement is wrong,” Benson said. (He is able-bodied but many of the other staff and all the board members are not.) “If you’re not going to ‘get better,’ you should be able to live the life you want.”

Working as an attendant, Benson quickly learned there was no formula for succeeding at the job.

“I was wrapping my head around the idea that if I went to five different people’s houses, the way they locked their door was different, the way they wanted to be touched was different. I had to respect that,” he said. “I approached repairs the same way. They know the sound their chair makes. Even though I’ve fixed thousands of wheelchairs, I’m going to ask their idea first.”

Benson worries that with the gradual loss of the old guard, and an uptick in clients who lack the livelihood to be at the forefront of an advocacy effort, the movement and organization won’t have the same momentum as it has in the past. Easy Does It has relied on its clients to consistently champion the organization and seek continued support from the city.

Easy Does It’s executive director Nikki Brown-Booker. The organization has more than 30 staff members. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Other changes have also made it more difficult for the organization to sustain the work it does in Berkeley.

In addition to the wheelchair repair shops, many of the machine shops that used to pepper West Berkeley and West Oakland are gone, along with many of the artists and fabricators who used to be available to help Benson perform common repairs, like straightening out a bent footrest, he said.

California’s In-Home Supportive Services program, which funds attendant care, is again facing potential budget cuts, after weathering slashes under both Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown. And “there’s a lot of fear in the community” about the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, said executive director Brown-Booker, who uses Easy Does It’s attendant services herself.

“Pretty much everyone we serve has a preexisting condition,” she said. Fewer and fewer providers cover wheelchairs anyway, she said, and a number of Easy Does It’s clients do not have insurance at all.

That is a particular issue for homeless clients.

“They’re out on the street using their chairs 24/7, and their equipment breaks down and they don’t have insurance,” Brown-Booker said.

The reliable support from the city has been crucial, she said.

In 2016, Berkeley voters overwhelmingly supported Measure V1, which re-approved, in part, the 1998 improvements tax that funds Easy Does It. The revenue has allowed Easy Does It a $1.2 million annual budget. Most of the organization’s more than 30 staff members have traditionally been paid a nominal wage plus the clients’ copays. But when Berkeley’s new minimum wage policy eliminated the exemption for on-call workers, Easy Does It confronted some financial trouble. In May, the city increased its support for the organization, providing a one-time chunk of funds from the improvement tax reserve, and direction to Easy Does It to come up with a sustainable plan for the future. Brown-Booker said her vision is to develop a network of private donors.

Despite new and persistent challenges for those living with disabilities and those working to serve them, Berkeley is still “the place” to be disabled, said Brown-Booker. “There’s a real community here that people seek out,” she said.

Those who can are often willing to pay a premium to live here, especially for access to the unusual on-call emergency services provided by Easy Does It, she said.

In hopes of preventing others from slipping through the cracks, Benson often approaches people on the street who seem like they could use the services, like he did with Royer. He has built up quite a roster of regulars over the years. But he knows from experience that the landscape and need will continue to shift.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...