On Free Bikes, Homeless Youth Get Where They Need to Go

April 1, 2013

For youth worker Matt Tennant, opening a nonprofit bike shop seemed like an ideal way to combine two passions. After years of doing street outreach in Minneapolis, Tennant opened Full Cycle in 2008 to connect homeless young people to the many benefits of owning and fixing bikes.

Today, Full Cycle repairs and sells bicycles, parts and accessories to the public. The organization also offers a number of initiatives for homeless youth ages 23 and under, including street outreach, an internship program and the Free Bike Program, which enables youth to build their own bikes from donated parts while also getting to know staff members.

“For us, the bike has always been a tool to do good youth work and to make connections,” he says.

Two Wheels, Many Benefits

Since opening Full Cycle, Tennant has seen and heard how bikes can help young people in many ways. Youth often tell him about jobs they’ve been able to keep, he says, or how they show up on time for appointments with their case workers.

Occasionally, the shop receives bike trailers, which young homeless parents use to take their children to the doctor and to plan healthy outdoor activities.

“When you’ve got three little kids and no transportation and you’re staying in the shelter, it really gets to be pretty smothering,” Tennant says. “So if you can get out on a bike, it can really change your frame of mind.”

He adds that for some young people, the most useful part of visiting Full Cycle takes place before they leave the shop. Tennant hires experienced outreach workers and mechanics, who get to know homeless youth while they make repairs. An hour-long appointment to build a bike may begin with replacing a tire, for example, and end with an offer to take the young person on a tour of a local shelter.

“Anytime you’re doing a project and you’re using your hands, you’re just connecting on a different level,” he says. “I think it makes it easier [for youth] to open up and have conversations that just come more naturally.”

Giving Bike Programs a ‘Test Ride’

Last year, Full Cycle loaned a small fleet of bikes to four local youth shelters to use however they saw fit. Shelters borrowed the bikes for six months before returning them to Full Cycle for maintenance over the winter. Tennant hopes to expand the initiative this summer to meet local demand, and he thinks other bike stores and agencies could easily replicate the program across the country.

He says youth workers can reach out to bikes stores in their communities, especially nonprofit shops with a youth focus. Nonprofit bike stores often have more bikes than they can sell, he says, and may be open to starting a borrowing program if one doesn’t already exist.

Agencies could also request bike donations or look for cheap bikes at yard sales and through online services like Craigslist. The most important step, Tennant says, is finding local mechanics willing to volunteer their know-how to keep bikes in working order.

“There are so many bikes sitting around unused out in the world,” he says. “It just takes people to find and redistribute them to people who will actually use them but can’t afford them."

This article was originally published by the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth and is reprinted here with permission.

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