Wendy Hernandez, 16, holds her 4-month-old son, Anthony, in their Hyattsville, Md., home, which is owned by her boyfriend's mother. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The black-haired girl sat alone in the darkened house, rocking a baby, head full of adult worries. She’s got to get out of here, she said. She doesn’t belong in this Hyattsville house, among pictures of people she doesn’t know, possessions that aren’t hers and inhabitants she doesn’t trust. But she doesn’t know where she does belong.

This is Wendy Hernandez. She’s 16. And a mother. And without a stable home. And right now, as she clutches her infant son, 4-month-old Anthony, at her boyfriend’s parents’ house, where he rents space along with strangers, she wonders whether she should add another troubling designation to that list. Should she become a drop-out?

She hadn’t been to High Point High School in nearly a week. Maybe, she thought, things would be easier if she never went back.

“I need to work,” she sighed, looking at Anthony, cooing in his cradle. “I need to support myself.”

Wendy Hernandez’s 4-month-old son, Anthony in their Hyattsville, Md., home which is owned by her boyfriend's mother. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Wendy’s predicament offers clues to the origins of today’s homeless crisis. Over the past several years, broad economic forces have given rise to an unprecedented surge in the number of homeless families, which account for nearly one-half of the 12,000 homeless people in the Washington region.

Three-fourths of the members of these homeless families are younger than 25. The problem is particularly acute in the District, which now houses 700 homeless families at the former D.C. General Hospital and motels. About 40 percent are headed by someone, usually a single mom, younger than 24.

Mothers such as Wendy represent the earliest manifestation of what has become a crippling problem. Academics and advocates say homeless adolescent mothers are substantially more at risk of further pregnancies, sexual abuse, mental health issues and dropping out. The trauma they experience during these vulnerable years they carry into adulthood and the homeless family service programs.

“This is the opening chapter to a much larger problem in that if we don’t see them now, we’ll see them later when they’re much worse off,” said Kate Coventry of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

But it’s extremely difficult to identify such mothers. Kids will do anything to avoid the embarrassment of admitting they’re homeless. As a result, no one — not the District’s Department of Human Services, not the schools, not advocates— is sure how many there are. They bounce undetected from couch to couch, house to house.

Then, even when adolescent mothers do emerge from the shadows, comes the equally challenging problem of what to do with them.

“Everybody feels like they belong to somebody else,” said Laura Zeilinger, the director of the District’s Department of Human Services. “If you’re under 18 and you are without a place, often times people have felt like it is the job of the child welfare system. And for the child welfare [system], unless there is abuse or neglect, they really feel that it is not [on] us. In the past, this has been a hot potato. . . . So the work that’s ahead is how do we not play hot potato?”

Then, of course, there’s the final problem.

These are kids. They might be mothers, but they’re still kids. They’re usually homeless because they fled conflict at home. So the question becomes, should agencies try to mend a broken family? Or should they focus on stabilizing them as they grow a new one?

Where to go?

It’s just after 4 p.m. on a Monday, and the rain is coming down something fierce. A broad man named Ricardo Villalba, who steers his silver sedan toward Wendy’s house, can’t stop sneezing. Allergies, he said. Too much pollen. But Villalba, a case manager with the Latin American Youth Center in Hyattsville, isn’t the sort to be easily deterred, especially when a kid is in trouble. And few are more in trouble than Wendy.

She just told him tension has erupted at her boyfriend’s parents’ house, and she and her baby need to get out by the end of the month. And he’s now having trouble finding somewhere for her to stay. Prince George’s County, like the District, doesn’t have many services for kids such as Wendy. St. Ann’s Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville, which houses homeless adolescent mothers, has only four federally funded slots for such girls, and they’re “always full,” Sister Mary Bader said. Other places, such as Sasha Bruce Youthwork in the District, house homeless youth only for a short time.

So Villalba swallows a sneeze as he pulls up to a squat dwelling before a tangle of bushes. The front door hangs open. Bees flit in and out of the entrance. Inside, Wendy sits on a dirty couch with her infant son, skipping another day of class.

Villalba sniffles as he listens to Wendy talk, silently noting the inconsistencies she permits into her narrative. Today she says she’s from El Salvador, but he’s confused because her documents say she’s Honduran. It’s also unclear exactly how long she’s stayed in this house. Her answers vary.

“This has a lot to do with the trauma that she’s been through,” Villalba said. “She experienced separation from her grandmother, who raised her, to come and live here with a total stranger, her mom. All of that has affected her.”

Compounding that trauma, academic research suggests, is her precarious housing. One study, published in 2010 in the Children and Youth Services Review, found significantly higher “rates of mental health problems such as mood disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidality” among homeless adolescent mothers “compared with demographically similar youths.”

Homeless adolescent mothers roughly fall into two categories. There are the kids who have fled some familial conflict, and then in the course of their homelessness, became pregnant. This is what happened to Wendy.

Falling into the other category is a fast-talking 21-year-old District woman named Tiara Coleman. Her pregnancy, at 17, precipitated her homelessness. “My mom freaked out,” she said. “She told me that she was disappointed and that this wasn’t the way she raised me.”

At the time, her parents were struggling to make the mortgage payments on their Brookland house in Northeast Washington and had decided to move their eight children into a two-bedroom apartment to save money. Coleman realized there wouldn’t be space for her.

What happened next reflects a transience common to many homeless youth. “It was time for me to go,” she said. “So I went to my friend’s house, and then I had to leave there, and then I went to another friend’s house, and then I couldn’t stay there no more.”

But even then, activists would consider Coleman, who now lives in a government-subsidized apartment, one of the lucky ones. She graduated from high school. Wendy might not be so lucky.

Managing the conflict

“It all depends if I find housing soon,” Wendy said into the telephone on a recent afternoon. She paused for a moment. Her son was wailing in the background. “If I don’t, I’m going to drop out. I might finish this year.”

The urge to drop out for homeless adolescent mothers is particularly strong, experts said, and particularly perilous. Finding affordable, reliable child care “is the biggest barrier to getting kids to come back to school after maternity leave,” said Diana Bruce, the director of health and wellness at D.C. Public Schools. After a homeless student gives birth, the entire focus becomes “to get them to graduation,” which is essential, she said, to “breaking the cycle of poverty.”

But achieving that often requires bringing stability to a young mother’s housing situation which can mean navigating seemingly intractable family problems.

“What we don’t want is for the homeless services system to assume that this conflict is irreparable, and now [the kids] have to go on an independent path, if, in the long run, what may be best for the family unit is to . . . support them being able to manage that conflict,” Zeilinger said.

But what if the rupture between child and parent is irreparable? What if the child is like Wendy?

The seeds of the mutual distrust between Wendy and her mom are buried deep in the past. Wendy, who was raised by her grandparents in La Paz, Honduras, never knew her mom, who left for the United States before Wendy’s second birthday. A decade passed. Wendy took to calling her grandparents mom and dad, while her mom started a new family far away. When Wendy was 12, she was finally summoned to what she was told would be a “better future” in Hyattsville.

But everywhere she went, she felt like an outsider, she said. At her house, “it was really strange,” Wendy said. “I felt scared because the way that my mom looked at me. . . . She would stare at me like everything I was doing was wrong. I felt like I didn’t belong there.”

So one day in May when Wendy was 14, she missed a bus. “I got scared that I would be late, and my mom would say I was doing this or doing that,” she said. So she decided then and there to flee.

“Everyone wants to know why she can’t just go back and live with her mom,”Villalba, the caseworker, said. “But I asked her mom, and she says, ‘I don’t want her to come here if she’s only going to be here for a few days, or weeks, then leave again when we try to enforce some rules.’ ”

Her mom, Maria Reyes, said Wendy never wanted to study and “told many lies.” And now, Reyes said, “She doesn’t want to live with me. I call her and she doesn’t pick up.”

And so, on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Wendy considered her options. She said she might move to New York. She said she might get a job, though she didn’t know where. She said she might go to the shelter for teen mothers. She said she has to provide for her son, but she wasn’t sure how. She wanted a change, but wasn’t sure what.

But then, Tuesday morning arrived. And Wendy, for the first time in a week, decided to go back to school. For now, she explained, school seemed like her best bet.