When Theresa Tod started working at a runaway shelter in the 1970s, she didn’t feel much different from the kids who showed up at the rundown old house in Houston, where she and a small group of activists had carved space for what was then an unusual service.
“We were pretty much kids ourselves,” Tod says. “We were just out of college, so even if we hadn’t necessarily been through the same circumstances, we didn’t feel that far removed.” Tod did a little of everything at the cooperatively run shelter, Family Connection.
“Everyone would get together and fix the meals,” Tod says. “It was just people helping each other out.”
Oh, how things have changed for this former front-line youth worker, and for the runaway services field that she and hundreds of others launched.
Today, Tod helps administer two youth services networks from an office in a tranquil wooded setting near Austin’s Town Lake, a far cry from the rowdy street scene she remembers outside Family Connection. As Tod searches on her computer, the serene trickle of an indoor fountain is the only sound in her sparsely decorated office.
While Tod used to open the shelter door to find police, today she opens the mail to find government checks: Last year the federal government sent a total of $333,000 to Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS), where Tod is executive director, and the Southwest Network of Youth Services (SWNOYS), where she is the grants administrator.
Tod’s journey mirrors that of many of her colleagues: Once street-level activists, they’re now office workers administering government-funded programs. They have some thoughts about how the runaway and homeless youth sector has evolved, for better and worse.
“It was,” says Steve Wick, “a very bizarre time.”
He’s talking about the early days of runaway youth work, which he joined in 1972 as a youth counselor for the Central Texas Youth Services Bureau, becoming executive director within a year. Although the growth of youth services bureaus nationwide was inspired by the 1967 recommendations of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, the programs were independently established and unreliably funded.
Wick says service providers were stuck between “the population that would donate, but wasn’t really sure what they were donating to,” and a portion of the public that “in some cases actually thought that we were part of the anti-authoritarian group … that was trying to undermine society by somehow assisting these young people.”
Wick, 61, was a founder of SWNOYS and TNOYS and sits on their boards. After 15 years away, he is back at the youth services bureau as deputy director.
For small shelters like Family Connection, which lasted through the late 1980s, treating kids as equals was a core philosophy – but the youth workers’ intimacy with runaways made many people see them as radical and even suspicious. Sometimes, Tod had to convince cops at the door that the staff wasn’t contributing to the delinquency of minors.
“The police didn’t really trust us,” she says.
Raised in rural Kansas, Tod herself couldn’t always relate to the lives of the mostly urban and suburban runaways she met in Houston. “I remember feeling that early on I had to learn to speak their language,” she says.
Money at such agencies was always tight. “At one point I had to lay my whole staff off just to save this organization,” Wick says of the youth services bureau.
As the ’60s drew to a close, society’s concern for the safety of runaways began to rise. As Wick tells it, one tragic and even ironic event helped to spur government funding of runaway programs.
In the summer of 1973, the American public was shocked by the news of nearly 30 gruesome serial murders in the Houston area. Most of the teenaged victims of Dean Corll had been casually classified as runaways by the local police department. The case fueled publicity and public concern about runaways, contributing to the passage in 1974 of the federal Runaway Youth Act (now the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, or RHYA).
The irony, Wick points out, is that many of Corll’s victims were not runaways and had been so classified over the protests of their parents.
Suddenly, federal money was flowing to youth shelters, where the staff was often as destitute as the teens. Through its Basic Centers program, RHYA funds temporary shelter, counseling and family reunification services. In fiscal 2006, the U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) provided nearly $100 million for runaway and homeless youth through the Basic Center Program; the Transitional Living Program, which provides long-term shelter for older homeless youth; and the Street Outreach program.
Just as importantly for the development of the field, the new grants were given out by region, creating an incentive for networking among agencies. Leaders from the five states in Region VI – Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico – began meeting to share ideas, and in 1977 formed the Southwest Network.
Through that network, Tod saw the value of organizing with other youth workers, while Wick turned his idea for the Texas Network of Youth Services into a reality.
TNOYS began meeting in 1978. In addition to organizing an annual conference, Wick says one of the group’s first moves was pushing for a state program to fund runaway centers. The program, now known as Services to At-Risk Youth (STAR), began in 1983 and provides emergency shelter and counseling services to kids in all 254 Texas counties.
At about the same time, Tod – who was helping to distribute RHYA funding through a resource center at the University of Texas in Austin – applied for the Texas network to get a FYSB grant to train and support RHYA grantees. Tod got the grant, and became executive director of TNOYS.
Today, the network is FYSB’s regional training and technical assistance provider for the Southwest region. Besides conducting seminars on such topics as suicide prevention, cultural differences and reaching older youth, TNOYS provides program-specific assistance.
While runaway agencies have benefited from government funding, some longtime activists like Tod and Wick feel that something’s been lost as runaway services have matured.
Federal and state funding has enabled programs to expand the scope and reach of services, and has institutionalized approaches, such as street outreach, that were once seen as unorthodox.
But some believe the movement has lost much of its fire. Today, runaway agencies offer steady jobs, and new college grads can wander in and out of the field without commitment to the cause. The runaway issue has been institutionalized to the point of accepted permanency; it’s rare to hear talk of eliminating the problem.
As runaways have become more troubled, and as funders such as government agencies have pressed harder for evidence of results, Tod worries that some service providers want to avoid difficult cases. “There’s a little bit more of a tendency to work with kids that they know they can be successful with,” she says.
On the other hand, Tod, 56, sees that the old tradition of identifying closely with runaway youth could be counterproductive. “The philosophy was to be a youth advocate, but it didn’t really help us to address the gap between the youth and their parents,” she says. “What I learned as I progressed in my professional development was … you didn’t do that by attacking the parents or taking sides.”
Tod still considers her work “alternative,” and believes vigilance is necessary to maintain a strengths-based approach over more punitive methods toward runaways.
“In the old days, it was fighting the establishment,” Tod says. “These days, it’s fighting the status quo. It’s a more inside-the-system fight.”