Jenise Spencer, center, speaks to youth near the Anacostia Metro station in Washington. Spencer, who is 20 and homeless, is helping to conduct a census of homeless teens in the city. (Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post)

As the Metro train rumbled toward Anacostia, the bespectacled girl withdrew from the conversation around her and pulled out her phone. Her attention was on more immediate matters.

“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” a friend had texted her.

“I know how you feel,” responded 20-year-old Jenise Spencer, a homeless youth on a citywide quest to find others like her. “I didn’t eat anything all day.”

Spencer, who lives at a Capitol Heights homeless shelter, has been without a home for so long she can’t remember everywhere she has slept. There were the nine months at the old D.C. General Hospital shelter after that first eviction notice that got her family booted from an Annandale house. There were months at an aunt’s place. A few more at her brother’s. And a handful more at a Marriott in Virginia, where she did all of her cooking in a microwave.

Looking at Spencer, you’d never guess how unstable her life has been. She wears elegant blouses and cardigans. Her nails are painted a rich red that matches her lipstick. Her hair, swept into long braids, is a subject of praise when she meets strangers.

Tough to spot

Homeless youths such as Spencer account for one of the fastest-growing subgroups in the District’s surging homeless population and, like Spencer, they can be extremely difficult to spot.

Advocates think thousands of them are out there — bouncing from couch to couch, place to place — but no one is quite sure where.

The most recent annual point-in-time count of the region’s homeless, in January, said the District has only 16 homeless kids living without a parent. That’s a laughable underrepresentation, advocates say.

The low estimates have resulted in fewer resources for homeless youths, whose instability reveals itself in less visible ways than is the case with the chronically homeless.

They prefer to crash with an ever-expanding list of people, rather than with older people in traditional shelters. A few city shelters target them — Sasha Bruce Youthwork, Covenant House, Catholic Charities — but officials say it’s not nearly enough.

So to get an accurate gauge, and to justify more resources, District officials have launched a nine-day, city-wide search for homeless youths between the ages of 12 and 24.

The census, which concludes Tuesday, has meant collecting data from the school system and local shelters and widening the definition of what it means to be homeless.

Unlike the point-in time count, it will include youths in insecure housing situations who may not even consider themselves homeless.

‘They don’t wear a label’

“They think that because they may not be living on the street,” said Deborah Shore, director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork. “They’re couch-surfing, and it may be, ‘Well, I have a place to stay tonight,’ so they don’t see themselves as homeless. . . . But when you have someone who is young, it’s much easier for the situation to become exploitative. There are certain exchanges for asking to live with someone.”

A recent survey of 60 homeless youths living in the District came to similar conclusions.

The study, conducted with University of Nebraska researchers, found that more than half of the respondents were victims of abuse, whether sexual, physical or something else. The overwhelming majority — 97 percent — said they “really want to get out of homelessness.” But two-thirds said it was better than their home situation.

The respondents said they did not go to shelters because they either didn’t know where one was, the shelter was too full to take them or they were too embarrassed to go.

“Young people experiencing homelessness, they don’t wear a label or a badge saying what they’re experiencing,” said Dora Taylor, spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Human Services. “They’re very hesitant about identifying themselves. So we need to have young people [helping in the census] who are going through the same thing.”

No easy feat

In other words, they need people like Jenise Spencer. Someone familiar with the social mores governing this hidden world. Spencer, who searches for homeless youths as part of a summer job with Sasha Bruce, knows what subtle questions to ask, which corners to search, how to get skittish kids talking.

She knows what it’s like to be hungry. And when she arrived at the Anacostia Metro stop on a recent Thursday evening, she knew she would not be the only young person with that problem. So she and two other outreach workers have come equipped with a secret weapon— $10 gift cards for McDonald’s.

“How much is on that gift card?” one 15-year-old homeless boy asked after saying he was sleeping on couches. Spencer told him, and he and his buddies laughed.

“Oh, man!” he squealed. “I need a card worth $50!” He and his friends then turned away, and Spencer never got a chance to count him in the city census. She knew he was homeless, but he wouldn’t admit it in front of his buddies.

“He said he was couch-surfing, but he just wanted to goof around with his friends,” she complained afterward. “He didn’t want to take this seriously.”

That’s the difficulty with the census, advocates said. Even when you know someone is homeless, if they decline to give their name, you can’t count them.

“This is not an easy feat,” said Margaret Riden, executive director of DC Alliance of Youth Advocates. “And this is the District’s first year doing this, and there’s going to be some lessons learned.”

One lesson Spencer has learned is to approach youths when they’re alone. She spotted a young man in sunglasses and an orange shirt. She suspected he was homeless, but was scared he, too, would demur to answer questions. “They’re talking to someone,” she murmured. “I don’t want to interrupt them.”

Then an opportunity opened, and she approached the young man with her questionnaire. He was 24. Named Ontae Butler. Lengthy rap sheet in Maryland. Been living on the streets or with friends since 18. But would he admit it?

Spencer asked him: Are you homeless? Butler looked around for a moment. Then he spoke so softly it was barely audible: “Yes.” Where did you sleep last night? “At a bus stop.” Where do you sleep most often? “With friends.” Where will you stay tonight? “No idea.” What’s the primary reason for your homelessness? “My mom put me out.”

When Spencer finished with her list of questions, Butler looked tired. Then he said something Spencer could understand. “I’ve been on my own, going from Grandma’s house to friends’ house, to family’s house, to bus stops, to McDonald’s, to wherever,” he said, adding: “And you might not even be able to tell! I look good! You might never know what I’m going through.”

Spencer jotted down his contact information, then said she had to go. It was now past 6 p.m. She had to eat something. So she hopped on a train, looking for a McDonald’s.