Industrial Revolution

Youth Industry offers more than food and shelter to homeless kids

At noon last Wednesday, another Mission District thrift shop -- Nu2u -- was set to throw open its doors for the first time. Newly relocated Canadian businessman Nigel Bates commemorated the moment by improvising a ribbon-cutting ceremony in a storefront just off the busy corner of 16th and Valencia with a length of red duct tape and a pocketknife.

Bates offered a brief speech about dedication and teamwork before good-naturedly prodding his skeptical charges to take part in the ribbon-cutting ritual.

"What a fruit loop," joked one of the staffers.
Bates' tidy, casual attire and professional, British-accented manner contrast with that of his employees. They're kids of the streets -- wearing thrift-store clothes not by choice but necessity -- disadvantaged young adults seeking vocational training through Youth Industry, the Mission-based nonprofit organization behind Nu2u.

Bates, a veteran small-business entrepreneur, has just been hired as Youth Industry's executive director, as the nearly 2-year-old program looks to expand its reach well beyond its humble grass-roots beginnings. The Nu2u thrift shop is the first of many changes envisioned as Bates accepts the company's reins from founder Michael Jacob "Jake" Sinclair, a 41-year-old pediatrician.

About three years ago, Sinclair and his sister, June Covington, established a communal experiment called Healing Kidz in a 21st Street warehouse. Both Sinclair and Covington say that as children they were the victims of an abusive family member; in an effort to sort through their own despair, they created a supportive environment for neglected street kids.

"It was an organic, community-type center," Sinclair says. "We worked from the Mother Teresa model. ... We tried that for a year, and it fried us."

According to Sinclair, youths came and went as they pleased, using the site (nicknamed Ground Zero) as a sympathetic crash pad. "We had no stipulations. There were 20 to 30 youth here at a time. Most would do drugs and prostitute all night. It was pretty wild."

Sinclair and Covington, who shared a windowless back room of the warehouse, quickly learned how worthless their "art expression" workshops were in rehabilitating the kids' lives.

In late 1994, Sinclair set a new course for Ground Zero, filing for nonprofit papers for Youth Industry (YI) and opening a silk-screen print shop called Zerolith Productions and a bike shop, Pedal Revolution, on the site. (Covington, meanwhile, moved to Phoenix, where her photojournalism study on homeless youth recently made the front page of the daily paper.)

"What we learned is you have to provide discipline, even though it will be outright rejected by a lot of the youth," Sinclair says, sitting in the Spartan second-floor office he recently relinquished to Bates.

For this interview, Sinclair slipped away on his motorcycle from his primary job as director of the Pediatric Referral Service, another of his ideas made reality. In addition to stepping down from the YI directorship, Sinclair recently sold the referral service, which offers the services of over 100 doctors in emergency and off-hour situations.

When he completes the two-year transition of his pediatrics business, Sinclair intends to realize his lifelong dream: He wants to open an orphanage in Brazil, where the astronomical rate of "throwaway rejections" is attributable at least in part, the doctor suggests, to the Catholic Church's stand against birth control.

Clearly, this devout Christian in Birkenstock clogs is feverishly committed to the well-being of young people.

Though he frequently refers to the role of God in his life, Sinclair doesn't push religion on his Ground Zero associates. Some of his colleagues "have totally opposite beliefs and laugh at me," he smiles. "Nobody's got a great answer for these youth. If you look at programs across the country, nothing seems to work very well. So we're trying to welcome anybody."

Though Bates calls him a "visionary," Sinclair shrugs off the label: "I'm trying to go back and heal the kid who was me by virtue of working with others," he says quietly, retaining eye contact. Though he's reluctant to speak freely about the motivations behind his social passions, Sinclair does express an excitable pride in certain of his accomplishments, such as his patent for a clear, two-sided rock-climbing wall designed for tandem climbs.

"I'm certainly an idea person who starts things," he says, "and then needs to turn them over to people who are good at running them."

Sinclair founded the Pediatric Referral Service as his answer to the growing impersonality of managed health care. As the term "family doctor" falls into obsolescence, "pediatricians are no longer willing to stay up all night and lose their own family time," he says. Virtually all of the pediatricians in San Francisco, Marin, and the East Bay, he says, now sign over their practices to the service at night and on weekends.

Though he has stepped down at YI, Sinclair will remain president of its board, hoping to usher the program into other cities in the near future. He sees Youth Industry providing an important missing link in the chain of local youth programs, most of which -- Larkin Street, Guerrero House, the Haight's Prodigal Project -- provide shelter and support groups but don't particularly emphasize job training.

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