Runaway teen-agers stand a better chance of finding safe shelter and sound advice thanks to a new program launched by Travelers Aid. The national organization, which dates back to 1917, has developed a reputation for helping confused and weary travelers from all walks of life - the handicapped, the elderly, foreigners, and others. Its approach has always been a passive one, its volunteers sitting patiently behind tables at train stations or bus depots.
In recent years, however, the Los Angeles volunteers have seen too many youngsters lured into the streMts by hustlers and con men. They have decided they are not going to take it sitting down anymore.
Travelers Aid is getting more aggressive.
It is now committed to countering the efforts of those who try to recruit prostitutes from the ranks of young runaways, says Wayne Hinrichs, executive director of the Los Angeles office. His desk is situated on the ground floor of the Greyhound terminal.
The Travelers Aid battle plan is called the ''Teen Canteen'' program. In April, the Travelers Aid staff converted some of its offices into a lounge where runaways can come for counseling and free sandwiches. And instead of waiting for them to wander in, staff members are starting an outreach effort that includes: getting bus drivers to hand out cards to possible runaways, referring them to the canteen; publicizing the program with signs, pamphlets, and posters; and having volunteers wear T-shirts with the Teen Canteen logo to become more visible in the station.
The program's effectiveness is threefold:
* It reaches runaways at a critical point - right when they enter the terminal. One local agency estimates that 70 percent of its out-of-town clients arrive here by way of the terminal.
* With the incentive of free food in the lounge, there is less chance that desperate youngsters will turn to the hustlers and pimps who approach them with offers of meals and lodging.
* Because Travelers Aid has 72 member organizations across the US, it can use its nationwide resources to get kids back home.
At the terminal, Teen Canteen volunteers offer advice on legal problems and direct young travelers toward other useful organizations in the city (halfway houses, medical clinics, and YMCAs).
More than 2 million youths - mostly 16- and 17-year-olds - run away from home every year, according to estimates from groups that deal with runaways. Largely because of the lure of Hollywood, Los Angeles has become a mecca for runaways. They come here to find a new beginning or to escape an unhappy home life. The Hollywood Human Services Project, which maintains a 24-hour telephone counseling service, estimates that 1,000 to 4,000 runaways are on the city's streets at any given time.
Before the Teen Canteen program began, these youths were straggling into the Travelers Aid office at a rate of only five or six a month. After one month in operation, that number jumped to 28, then to 69 in May, according to Joel Schwartz, founder of the Teen Canteen. Mr. Schwartz began the program when he realized that many of these youths who funnel through the bus terminal could be reached before they ended up on the street.
Travelers Aid is one of nine public and private agencies in the city which work together to help these youngsters.
On rare occasions, the staff has seen the fruits of its labor. Barbara Hill, a caseworker for the Teen Canteen, recalls a hitchhiker in his early 20s who came in and talked to her for 45 minutes. Months later, he came back and told her she had helped him turn his life around. He had found a job soon after counseling, and was settled happily in Los Angeles.
The most frequent success story at Travelers Aid is the runaway who returns home. In May, 56 youngsters returned home, moved in with a relative, or were placed in a foster home with the help of the organization. It tries to get parents to pay travel expenses, because this reestablishes a commitment between parent and child. But if relatives back home aren't able to pay, Travelers Aid can reach into its emergency contingency fund or receive help from the Los Angeles Department of Social Services.
Travelers Aid wants to expand the Teen Canteen program. Currently the canteen program operates on an annual budget of $28,570 ($25,000 from the California Community Foundation and $3,570 from the United Way). It plans to hire more staff, train more volunteers, and increase working hours from 7 to 12 hours a day by midsummer. There are currently 10 paid staffers at the Greyhound office. Schwartz says he hopes Teen Canteen will inspire similar approaches at Travelers Aid offices in other cities.