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.

"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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