‘Braking Cycles’ sets out to serve homeless youth with bikes, coffee and art

‘Braking Cycles’ sets out to serve homeless youth with bikes, coffee and art

braking cycles founders

Transitional Youth founder Bert Waugh with
Braking Cycles founder and executive
director Rhona Mahl.
(Photo courtesy Mahl)

Two years ago, Rhona Mahl asked one of the young, homeless men she works with what his perfect job would look like.

“His was, he loved his bike,” the social service worker recalled in an interview Thursday. “He goes everywhere on his bike.”

The conversation inspired Mahl to create a social enterprise that could move him toward a job working with bicycles. This week, she said she’s on the cusp of making it happen: Braking Cycles, her nonprofit startup, would be a combination coffee shop/bike-resale charity/bike-gift-design firm.

Volunteers, she said, will staff the coffee bar and make bike-themed greeting cards and jewelry from old bike parts. They’ll also repair donated bicycles, which she then hopes to resell to local used bicycle shops. Mahl aims to hire experts in each field to train the volunteers, who will eventually be eligible for jobs at Braking Cycles or partner organizations.

Mahl expects the volunteer staffers will mostly be residents of the houses maintained by Braking Cycles’ parent nonprofit, the 23-year-old Beaverton-based charity Transitional Youth.

In an interview Thursday, Mahl said she’s secured $15,000 worth of equipment donated by a defunct coffee shop and pledges from donors for enough startup capital to rent the coffee shop’s first space, though she’s hoping to find someone willing to donate free space somewhere in central Portland.

Mahl, who’s been working on the plan for a year and a half, said she’d be the paid executive director of Braking Cycles and would hire another staffer to manage the coffee shop.

It’s an unusual business plan. But Mahl is excited to begin it. She said local nonprofit pub Oregon Public House has chosen Braking Cycles as one of its “spotlight organizations” for July, August and September. Speaking by phone Thursday, Mahl said she was preparing for a meeting that day with Mayor Charlie Hales to talk about possible shop locations.

Part of Braking Cycles’ larger mission, Mahl said, is to create change in the world of homeless services, which depends heavily on government contracts.

“We are government-dependent agencies teaching our children to be government-dependent, and that just seems like a broken way to start,” Mahl said.

She hopes the profits from Braking Cycles can be reinvested into the work of Transitional Youth, a charity with a $400,000-a-year budget that was created and for years was fully funded by Bert Waugh, founder of the major local real estate brokerage Prudential Northwest Properties.

“I love Portland and I just feel like we can utilize what’s most beautiful in Portland,” Mahl said. “And that’s bikes and coffee and art.”

As for the young man who’d inspired Braking Cycles, Mahl said they’re still in touch.

“I told him, as soon as we get our shop, I’m going to hire him as a mechanic,” she said.

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