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Economy and Business

Building futures with bike racks
Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry helps displaced residents get employment ready with a new program

Amy Cooknick
Bryan Mauk (L) and John Handyside (R) with a welding machine in the Metro Metal Works garage.
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Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry:

One downtown Cleveland men’s shelter is making the best of a poor economy by providing jobs to its homeless residents. Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry has been running over capacity since the start of the economic downturn, as increasing numbers of men face unemployment. Through a fledgling initiative called Metro Metal Works, homeless residents can work for minimum wage while at the shelter, build a resume, and make professional connections to give them that much-needed lift toward long-term employment.

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Meet John Handyside
It’s the start of another work day in the Metro Metal Works garage at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry on Cleveland’s west side. Dressed in pale, worn jeans, work shoes, and a powder-blue T-shirt beneath his dirty gray hoodie, John Handyside arrives ready to weld.

The walk to his job isn’t far for Handyside. He’s one of about 350 men who call this shelter home. In addition to housing homeless and out-of-work men in Cleveland, the ministry provides a steady job for eligible residents like Handyside.

Residents generally stay at the shelter for 36 days, down from an average of 40 days just last year, thanks to increased help from partner organizations. Although the men can stay as long as they need to, it helps everyone involved if residents can get back on their feet as quickly as possible.

Handyside entered the shelter about four months ago following a dispute with relatives. He began making bike racks with the Metro Metal Works program soon after.

“They have a program – stipend program – which is sort of like an allowance for the people who live here so they can have some money in their pockets," Handyside says. "And the coordinator, he informed me about the bike program, asked me if I was interested and I turned in my resume and interviewed and got the position.”

Now Handyside spends his days bending metal into bike racks in the garage at the ministry.

Why bike racks?
Mike Sering, vice president of housing and shelter for the ministry, says the concept of making bike racks to place around the city came from an idea to create jobs for residents within the shelter.

“We were looking at opportunities for the guys and at the same time, we realized that the city was purchasing bike racks from out of state. And we figured that, hey, if we could purchase them locally, that’d be awesome," Sering says. "We could create job opportunities and then the money wouldn’t leave the state.”

Bryan Mauk has been involved with the shelter in various capacities since high school. When he was appointed director of social enterprise in May 2011, Mauk heard of a proposal within the ministry to employ residents to build bike racks. Mauk adopted the idea as his own project and began experimenting with building bike racks in his garage at home.

He says making the bike racks helps residents, not only by providing them with a steady job, but also by solving a transportation problem.

“Most of the people who are impoverished, bicycle is their primary means of transportation. You know, they don’t have a car," Mauk says. "A good bicycle getting stolen is just a huge thing, so if places that they bike to don’t have anywhere to securely store it, it’s a big issue in their lives. So it’s another way of helping. It’s another product that not only helps the people who are making them, but the people who are receiving them.”

Mauk says now is an especially crucial time to help the men at the shelter find employment.

“We’ve been running our overflow all through the summer, which is really unusual for us. I think it is partially because, as we see the tail of the foreclosure crisis and the economy coming through, we’re seeing a lot more people that are experiencing homelessness.”

The effects of a poor economy
The decrease in available jobs has had an especially powerful negative impact on men like those at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, many of whom lack the resources to seek jobs competitively. Sering says building the bike racks gives residents a shot at future employment by offering a stable work experience and the chance to prove themselves as employees.

“It serves as an awareness thing as well for people to see, ‘Oh wow, someone has a re-entry background, someone used to be homeless, and they’re smart, hardworking and dedicated,’ which is not normally what people think of when they think of homelessness,” Sering says. “We send people to job opportunities all the time and we can say, ‘Hey, this guy is a consistent worker doing a good job and could use a break.’”

Sering says Metro Metal Works employees built and installed 40 bike racks in 2011 and more than 200 in 2012.

Looking ahead 
With the success of the program, Mauk says plans are underway to create more businesses within the ministry. He’s working on a fresh-food distribution project called Central Kitchen and hopes to increase the number of entrepreneurial ventures from there, taking into consideration the talents already available at the shelter.

“Not everybody’s a cook, not everbody’s a welder, so the idea is to have both a portfolio of businesses that can have different markets to exploit, but also different trades and skills that people can learn," Mauk says.

As for Handyside, he doesn’t plan on being at the shelter long enough to see those new enterprises take shape. He says the resume he’s building with the bike- rack program will help him find a better job once he leaves the shelter.

“It shows that you’re willing to work to potential employers and it shows that you are working, which looks good on a resume. So it is a great help to both the worker and the program itself," Handyside says.

Mauk says the ministry is now building new administrative offices on Superior Avenue at East 45th Street. With the success of the bike rack program, Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry recently bought an empty warehouse across the street from the new offices. Mauk says he plans to move the program into the warehouse, which is better equipped to handle welding machines without the risk of blowing fuses.

Related Links & Resources
Lutharn Metropolitan Ministry

Metro Metal Works website

Related WKSU Stories

Couch surfing and beyond: Young and homeless in Cleveland
Thursday, January 31, 2013

Helping the homeless through motivation
Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Cleveland's growing homeless population
Monday, November 21, 2011

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