Industrial Revolution

Youth Industry offers more than food and shelter to homeless kids

"The street environment produces youth with energy, adrenalin, creativity," he says, "but it's extremely difficult to place them in a regular job. They have strange-colored hair and dirty fingernails" -- and fast-foods jobs, he says, are "boring."

YI has two distinct advantages over other job training sites, Sinclair says: "One, we have interesting jobs" -- bike repair, T-shirt printing -- and YI lets interns work three months in the organization before it tries to place them in outside jobs, giving them a $600 monthly stipend with additional allowances for food during that period. According to Sinclair, in the past year YI has taken on about 60 new recruits; of the 40 or so who stayed with the program, their success rate at holding outside jobs has been about 75 percent, says Sinclair.

"We guarantee a job," he says. "We'll keep them here a year if we have to."
Youth Industry also employs nearly as many hourly-wage staffers as disadvantaged youth, providing constant mentorship in addition to on-the-job training. The thrift shop's opening day, for example, was handled by two interns (Chad and Melissa, referrals from Guerrero House and the Prodigal Project), and two assistant managers, one of whom, Carl, brings counseling experience from Oakland's Harbor House and is seeking better business training than he was receiving working in a movie theater.

Unlike most other thrift stores, which accept charitable donations or buy their stock from jobbers, Nu2u's goods are solicited by YI's "bag crews," who canvas suburban neighborhoods with collection bags. The bag crews provide the majority of YI's entry-level positions, as the job requires little more than a strong set of legs.

"The bag job is a blast," Sinclair says. "It's like a treasure hunt, and the youth are dumpster divers anyway." But the job doesn't teach much in the way of customer service or social interaction: "One of the reasons we want to have the store," Sinclair says, "is we want to give the crews more vertical movement within our organization."

New Executive Director Bates says he's been given a "pretty clear mandate": to solidify YI's business operations, and then expand them. To that end, Youth Industry -- with a projected $1 million budget by year's end (80 percent self-sufficient), according to Sinclair -- is set to revive many of Ground Zero's art-therapy workshops. The Ground Zero staff is currently seeking volunteers to teach photography, ceramics, welding, performance, writing, and the like; Sinclair's wife, a musician, will have a hand in resurrecting the workshops.

In the machine shop area of Ground Zero, Lee, a shy but friendly youth in a skullcap and baggies, shows off a new wall display of the interns' salvage art: a collection of brightly painted, individualistic chairs. Lee's own contribution is an inventively shaped metal stool he made from scratch.

Formerly homeless, Lee is preparing to begin studies at the Academy of Art downtown.

Sinclair is obviously pleased that the success of his vocational program has cleared the way for YI to reinstitute art classes for its youth. "You can't just get off the street by working," he says. "That's only eight hours of the day. What do you do with the other 16?

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