Building a better Bridge

Program for homeless and runaway youth welcomes new director

EAST ISLES — Tim Reardon’s office window looks out onto the backyards of three Victorian-era houses near the intersection of Emerson Avenue South and West 22nd Street.

Those buildings, plus a fourth house where Reardon sits, make up The Bridge, a 37-year-old organization serving runaway and homeless youth.

The old homes house runaway children and teens who stay at The Bridge until they can be reunited with their families, as well as homeless youth who may never return home. They also provide office space for counselors, a nurse and administrators.

"We have people in basements, attics," Reardon said, referring to the cramped confines to which 65 employees report daily. "I mean, we have people stacked up like cordwood [in] every nook and cranny of these old buildings."

But not for long, they hope. The future of The Bridge — a nonprofit with an annual budget of about $4 million — lies across the street, and Reardon plans to lead them there.

Reardon, 48, became the organization’s executive director in September. He replaced Ed Murphy, who led The Bridge for about six years.

Reardon is taking the reins in the midst of a $7.8 million capital campaign and major expansion.

When it opens in 2008, The Bridge Center for Youth will more than double the number of transitional housing beds it currently provides for homeless youth. Up to 20 youth aged 17–21 will live in the center while they work or attend school and prepare for independent living.

The former Kenwood Professional Building will also provide new space for The Bridge’s administrative offices.

Reardon said the expansion "demonstrates the commitment we have to this population of young people."

 

An inspiring mission

Reardon said he shares that commitment.

"On a professional level, I’m a mission-driven kind of person," he said.

The Bridge’s mission was one he found particularly inspiring.

"[If] kids come off the street at 3 o’clock in the morning, we’ve got a safe place for them to come," he said. "If things are spinning out of control at a house, and the dynamics between a parent and a teenager are tense, they can come here and, 24/7, we have family counselors available who can help them."

Reardon said his background as a licensed social worker increased his appreciation for The Bridge’s clinical practice, especially the respect and acceptance staff show their clients.

"The magic of what The Bridge does is really taking these kids and these families where they’re at," he said. "There’s no
judgment."

Reardon began his professional life serving the homeless at Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul. Most recently, he ran The Reardon Group, a consulting firm. He is an adjunct faculty member at the University of St. Thomas College of Business and Metropolitan State University College of Management.

As a consultant, Reardon said he was often "plopped into" the middle of an organization and given a short-term goal to achieve.

"I’m looking for more of a long-term impact" at The Bridge, he said.

Reardon, a single father of a 4-year-old girl, Tess, also wanted stability in his personal life. Working as a consultant, he said, required a lot of travel.

The Bridge as an organization is remarkable for its stability. Reardon noted several critical staff members, including the associate director, have been with the organization for 10–20 years, forming a "very solid core."

"I’m here to support that," he said.

The Bridge Board of Directors Chair Patti O’Leary said just four executive directors had led the organization in its 37-year history.

"We’ve had just a string of very successful leadership and very few leaders," O’Leary said. "We’re optimistic that [Reardon] is going to carry on that tradition."

She said Reardon’s predecessor, Ed Murphy, was recognized as a powerful voice in policy discussion around homeless and runaway youth. She expected Reardon, too, would be a strong advocate for youth.

 

Fundraising goals

Whatever his long-term goals, Reardon’s short-term mission is clear: The Bridge still must raise about $1.5 million to reach its capital campaign goal.

When the Center for Youth is completed, Reardon said he will turn his attention to the older buildings across the street, two of which The Bridge owns and plans to retain.

The houses will continue to house the crisis shelter, the first stop for runaways or families in crisis. There, counselors work with youth and their families toward reunification, when possible.

As Development Director Steve Devereux explained, there are "50 million reasons" why youth end up at the crisis shelter. Some are foster children who "aged-out" of the system. Some are running away from a dysfunctional home. Many are gay or lesbian youth whose emerging sexuality is not accepted by their families.

Devereux said it’s estimated 30–40 percent of homeless youth nationwide are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, a statistic reflected in the experience of staff members at The Bridge.

"I think it’s a … role that we play to help those kids through that crisis with their parents," Reardon said. "I’m not sure that the gay and lesbian population of the Twin Cities area is aware of the role that we’ve played, and I’d like to raise our profile there."

That is one strategy Reardon will pursue to increase donations from individuals, possibly the largest area of potential growth in The Bridge’s funding sources. About half of The Bridge’s budget is funded through county, state and federal government agencies, with another 10–15 percent coming from United Way, Devereux said.

If potential donors are looking for testimonials, Reardon made it sound like they shouldn’t be hard to find. He said The Bridge would remain not only an influential advocate for homeless youth, but also a training ground for the professionals who serve them.

"You talk to almost anybody in the [Twin Cities’] youth-serving community," he said, "and a lot of young people who are [now] social workers and psychologists and youth workers have come through The Bridge."

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected] or 436-4391.