Ohio bike rack business offers homeless men jobs

MICHAEL O'MALLEY The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer Published:

CLEVELAND (AP) -- Shopping for bicycle racks a few years ago, the city had to spend its money out of state because no machine shop in this old smokestack town made them.

But now Metro Metal Works, a program of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, is cranking out bike racks at the Lakeside men's homeless shelter, hiring people on the skids who need money and job training. Some are homeless. Some are just out of prison.

"This allows us to show that we have current employment," said John Handyside, a homeless man working a pipe-bending machine in the rack shop. "And that makes it easier to find a better-paying job."

Handyside lives in the shelter, earns minimum wage and pays child support. "This also keeps me out of trouble," he said.

Metro Metal Works was started by Michael Sering, vice president of housing and shelter for Lutheran Metropolitan, a nonprofit charitable agency, and Bryan Mauk, director of the agency's social-enterprise program.

With startup grants totaling $70,000 from the city and the Dominion Foundation, they purchased a welder, a drill press and a pipe-bender.

Mauk came up with a couple of designs and by July 2011, the fledgling enterprise was in business. Working out of the shelter's maintenance garage, it has sold bike racks to a McDonald's restaurant, some local churches and the cities of Cleveland and Cleveland Heights.

Currently, Metro Metal is working on an order from Cleveland for 40 more racks.

"There's an explosion of bicycles," said drill press operator Marc Dorsey, 59, who is in Lutheran Metro's community re-entry program. "And with the price of gas going up, there's going to be more demand."

Metro Metal operates on a $100,000 annual budget, employing about eight people a year. But the operation keeps growing, and its bottom line is nearly in the black.

"Most of it's now operating on sales," said Mauk. "We're almost about to make money. It's scary."

Metro Metal buys its steel from Legend Tube & Metal Sales Inc. just down the street.

Metro Metal does some welding, but for big welding jobs it contracts with Ohio Technical College. That's because the shelter garage doesn't have enough electrical power to run heavy welding machines.

"When we turn on the welder, we blow fuses and the computer lab upstairs goes out," said Mauk. "People in the lab are losing their resume work."

But that's about to change.

Lutheran Metro, which is headquartered in the Ohio City neighborhood, is building new administration offices. Across from the new offices, it has purchased an empty warehouse building into which Metro Metal will move and will have enough power to run big welders without blowing fuses.

"I'd like to see the space used as an incubator for other ventures," said Mauk.

Six members of AmeriCorps VISTA have been working with Mauk on his enterprise program, including brainstorming for new ventures.

"They've come up with ideas from selling peanuts to curing cancer," he said.

The administrative office space will also house a kitchen that will prepare meals for the homeless and offer culinary training to poor people looking for jobs.

The kitchen project, currently operating at the Lakeside shelter, was launched through $200,000 in grants from the Cuyahoga County Office of Re-entry and the Cleveland Foundation. It employs five full-time workers and will be training 30 people a year.

The Lakeside shelter is run by a 60-member paid staff, two-thirds of whom had been homeless, plus it benefits from countless hours of volunteer work by the shelter's residents.

"People think homeless people are lazy," said Sering, noting that the shelter houses and feeds about 390 men a night. "But these men are not letting us down."

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Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com