Matt Tennant’s approach to helping homeless youth started by accident a decade ago when, working the overnight shift at a local shelter, he stayed awake by tuning up his bike.
A few night owls stayed up and took an interest. Tennant let them help and before long, they were talking. Maybe, at first, about how to use a spoke wrench, but eventually about their lives and struggles and needs.
“Kids want to let you know what’s going on and they want to be open,” Tennant said. “They just need to feel comfortable. They need to feel connected. I think working on bikes together helps to make that happen.”
Flash forward to today, and bicycle maintenance as trust-building is a core part of Tennant’s nonprofit, Full Cycle Bike Shop in south Minneapolis. About 200 times each year, young people come to the shop and work with a mechanic and youth worker on donated bikes that they get to keep. The conversation eventually turns to the children and their needs, and then the workers at Full Cycle can connect them with a food shelf or job or career training or other forms of support.
The shop received a boost this year with a $125,000 state grant to expand its operations and with a visit last week from state Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson.
The grant allows Full Cycle to expand internships in which homeless youth receive employment skills training for three months and then work in the shop for three months. Graduates have received the skills and references to get full-time jobs, afford apartments and escape homelessness. And the bikes, of course, give them transportation.
Jesson was impressed with the operation and the way Full Cycle used bicycle maintenance as an icebreaker to connect with children who are often traumatized and mistrustful.
“I think of my teenage and young-adult children, who aren’t in these difficult situations,” she said. “Trying to sit them down and say ‘Talk to me, what’s going on?’ It just doesn’t happen. ... It’s often when I’m driving them someplace that they finally might talk to me.”