Dan Davis, 30, the outreach director at Sasha Bruce House, patrols the city for homeless teenagers. He gathers a few items before leaving the facility on 8th Street SE. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

For three years now, Dan Davis, an outreach worker for the only teen homeless shelter in town, has loaded up a minivan with granola bars, water bottles and instant noodle soup and headed out most every night searching for what he calls an invisible population. He wants to make sure that even if these teens don’t have a safe place to stay, they’ll at least have something to eat.

It’s never easy to get adolescents to admit they’re homeless, let alone to accept help, he said. But now, Davis’s mission has become even more urgent.

In recent weeks, the Interagency Council on Homelessness voted down an amendment promoted by advocates to grant homeless youths ages 12 to 17 a legal right to shelter on nights when the temperature drops below freezing.

D.C. law, for years, has extended the right to shelter to adults and families to keep people from freezing to death during hypothermia season — a law that is rare in this country. When shelters are full, as they are now, overflow spaces open up in churches and rec centers, or the city pays for motel rooms.

But leaders maintain that parents and city agencies such as Child and Family Services — not city shelters — should be responsible for homeless teens.

Until January, the nonprofit teen shelter at Sasha Bruce, funded by the city, the federal government and private donations, was able to handle the flow of runaway teens who come into the shelter for a few days while social workers try to reunite them with families.

But when the District cut the funding by $500,000 and the number of available shelter beds dropped from 16 to five, the shelter couldn’t keep up with demand. Deborah Shore, executive director of Sasha Bruce, estimates that the shelter turned away as many as 150 teens on freezing nights between February and April this year.

The city has promised $500,000 to fund six more youth shelter beds in January. But family homelessness has quadrupled in the District in recent years. The family shelter at D.C. General is already packed with more than 500 families. And city surveys estimate that homeless teens number in the thousands.

Advocates worry that six more beds won’t be enough. On Wednesday, they plan to deliver to city officials a petition with close to 1,000 signatures calling for more teen emergency shelter beds.

“For God knows how many years, [teens were] just part of the homeless population that we took care of,” said Davis, a burly man of 30 who was once a homeless teen. “But now, it seems as if this population doesn’t even exist.”

‘In a tough spot’

On a recent night just after 8, as the temperatures dropped below freezing, Davis jammed a knit hat on his head, checked the stock of snacks, water and other supplies in the back of his minivan, and headed out.

On Mondays, he hits wards 4 and 5. Tuesdays, Eastern Market and Ward 6. Wednesdays, Anacostia and Ward 8. Thursdays, Ward 7. Fridays, Columbia Heights and wards 1 and 2. And Saturdays, he said, are for “hot spots” — places where kids sell drugs or trade sex for food, money or a place to sleep.

As he drove along Benning Road NE, expecting to find as many as 60 to 80 teens without a safe place to stay on this cold night, Davis shook his head. He had nowhere to refer them: Sasha Bruce shelter had one opening.

Davis drove slowly along the small side streets off Benning Road NE that cut through the public housing in the Carver Langston neighborhood. He eased the van to the curb once he spotted a cluster of teens huddled together on the sidewalk. Some carried bulging backpacks on their backs, often a sign, Davis said, that a homeless youth is carrying all of his worldly belongings.

“You all got a safe place to stay?” Davis asked.

“We cool. Just chillin’,” one teen responded.

The teens stuffed their pockets with granola bars and soup.

Then Davis watched them walk across the street, kick open the door to an apartment building and head into what Davis worried was another “trap house” — where the poor and homeless squat.

“Crazy things are always happening in a trap house. Guns. Drugs. Run-ins with the police,” Davis said. “On nights like this, it’s not so much that I’ll find teens sleeping outside in the streets as doing something dangerous to keep from sleeping outside.’’

Teen homelessness often is invisible, Davis said. Kids are resourceful. They’ll go for months “couch surfing,” crashing with relatives or faking their way into the psych ward for a few days.

Formerly homeless teens such as Jonathan Williams, whose mother died when he was 16 and whose fights with family members sent him out on the streets on his own, talk about their time locked up in jail as “vacation” because at least they were warm and no longer hungry. “I know I’ve done things that aren’t good,” he said. “But you’re going to do what you have to do to eat.”

That’s why Davis comes out: He wants to reach youths before their lives spiral out of control. Everywhere he goes, he hands out cards with the 24-hour hotline number for shelter, no questions asked. He just hopes, he said, that if they call, there’s room.

“There’s such a stigma about being homeless for these young people,” Davis said. “And for them to want to come into a shelter, it shows a level of desperation, that they’re really in a tough spot.”

‘A moment of crisis’

Advocates have long complained that the District’s “winter plan” to shelter the homeless has never addressed teens or “unaccompanied youths.”

This year, for the first time, city leaders and homeless advocates have agreed to expand homeless services for young adults ages 18 to 24 and have created beds for them in the event that Covenant House becomes full this winter.

But there is no similar plan, or legal right to shelter, for youths 12 to 17.

City Administrator Allen Lew said at the recent Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting that giving homeless teens a legal right to shelter would become an “unsustainable” burden for the District. And, D.C. leaders maintain, the shelter system shouldn’t be responsible for them. Others should be.

If a child 12 to 17 years old has been abused or neglected, the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) should be responsible and place the child in foster care, said David Berns, director of the Department of Human Services.

If a child 12 to 17 has run away from a group home or a juvenile corrections facility, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services should be responsible.

And if teens have fought with their parents or run away from dysfunction at home, the parents should be held responsible for them, Berns said. Last year, he said, city police picked up 3,000 teens for curfew violations and returned all 3,000 home.

Trying to keep kids with their families was the reason the city dropped its contract with Sasha Bruce house last year, said Brenda Donald, CFSA director.

“We found that the better practice was to stabilize the child with the family and bring counseling services to the family” rather than encourage youths to run away, she said.

Advocates say they, too, want to reunify children with their families. “But in a moment of crisis, the guiding philosophy in most communities is to have a safe and secure place to do triage,” said Maggie Riden, executive director of the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates. “We don’t want to house kids in shelters in perpetuity. But you also can’t expect to take a kid who’s run away from home and drop them right back there and expect them to stay.”

“If there’s no abuse or neglect, if you’re not a ward of the court, if you have a home, the proper response is to call the family,” Berns said.

And if the youth says he can’t go home?

“That’s raising a teenager, really,” Berns said.

‘Just trying to make it’

When it comes to teen homelessness, Dan Davis has heard it all and seen it all. He’s also lived it.

After his family imploded when he was 16, he found himself staying with friends, sleeping at his football coaches’ houses, crashing on the floors of various buildings, “just trying to make it” for more than a year.

“I would have done anything to stay out of a shelter,” Davis said.

And he understands why homeless teens work so hard to stay out of sight. Some kids get kicked out of the house after report cards come out and angry parents worry the teens will come to no good. Some, such as Rashid Mills, a formerly homeless teen, leave because they no longer want to be a burden to a household stretched to the financial breaking point.

These are not kids who would ever willingly come into the child welfare system, Davis said.

“They’re not going to say anything that would get their families in trouble or cause them to lose benefits,” Davis said.

By midnight, Davis had checked the 24-hour CVS stores, emergency rooms, libraries, McDonald’s franchises, lobbies, garages, and, in the Trinidad neighborhood, a Chinese food carryout, a barber shop and a food mart where all the food was jammed behind the counter and protected with a floor-to-ceiling bulletproof plastic cage.

He peered into stairwells near a a courtyard lined with forlorn metal clotheslines lit by the bright moon. He found three teens, 16 and 17, hanging out in a laundry room and gave them hotline cards.

It was a slow night, Davis said. And he has to brace himself for the onslaught: After the holidays, when all the goodwill has been used up and the family budget has grown even tighter, there’ll be so many of them that the usually invisible teens will be hard to miss.