Matt Tennant: The Bike Builder

Matt Tennant

Matt Tennant Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

Matt Tennant’s approach to addressing youth homelessness is a little less by the book, a little more by the bike.

Fifteen years ago, Tennant was an outreach worker who spent his days connecting with young people in their environment, handing out winter gear and bus tokens, introducing them to shelters and resources.

Noble work, to be sure. But Tennant nonetheless felt he was only doing half of the job.

“I got really good at connecting young people on the streets to social services, and then I was seeing these same young people get stuck there,” he says. “There were no real opportunities for them to exit that system and be more independent. And I didn’t want to be the social worker who sat across the desk from kids and asked them why their life was sucking so bad.”

This is where Full Cycle, his nonprofit south Minneapolis bike shop, was born. It started as a free bike program, with Tennant inviting kids to repair donated bikes alongside him, building a relationship as they tightened bolts and greased chains. In this low-key, non-clinical environment, he could get to know kids whose experiences might have left them with real reasons not to trust adults. And he connected with them while resolving an additional need: providing access to transportation.

Eventually, the bike-building operation grew big enough that it needed its own space. Tennant opened Full Cycle at 35th and Chicago in 2008.

The mission has only expanded since. There’s the two-phase, six-month-long paid internship, which teaches a structured mechanic curriculum and imparts professional knowledge like résumé writing. The idea is to give kids a complete set of skills—not just the know-how to work on bikes. Full Cycle’s food access programming is equally robust. As he was getting his nonprofit off the ground in ’08, Tennant was also busy starting the state’s first youth-specific food shelf: Groveland Food for Youth. He handed off that brick-and-mortar building this year to focus on other programs, including food pantry delivery, which the shop provides (by bike, of course), and a pop-up food shelf.

Tennant is big on opening doors—and he opens lots of them—but there are no guarantees here. Anyone who completed the internship program can apply for a delivery job or a position with the pop-up. Not everyone gets one.

But Tennant does everything he can to provide youth with whatever they need. While Full Cycle isn’t a drop-in center per se, it has a lounge where anyone can rest, read magazines, listen to music. Kitchen shelves in the shop’s rear store an array of food, and the bathroom is always stocked with soap and toiletries that are available to anyone, no questions asked.

Full Cycle still offers those free bike appointments, giving away more than 200 rides every year.

“They do exactly what I used to do at the shelter: They build a bike, they listen to music, and they talk about what’s getting in the way of true independence and stability, where they want to be as a young adult,” he says. “And if they’re not interested in any sort of social services, great. Then they walk out of here with a free bike.” 

Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.