Desiree Miller dropped out of high school in western New York, left her grandparents’ home at 17 with no good place to go, and, after a season or two of couch-surfing at friends’, wound up on the streets. When it got cold, she and boyfriend Toupoc Allen hitchhiked for 44 days and eventually wound up in South Beach.
That’s where volunteers attempting the first systematic tally of homeless youths in Miami-Dade County spotted the couple Thursday night.
Sitting on the steps of the Miami Beach Community Church on Lincoln Road Mall, Miller and Allen told interviewers from the iCount Miami census an all-too-common tale of family rejection and precarious survival with no help and no place to call home.
“I was living in this tent in the woods behind a box factory,’’ said Allen, 19. “Once in a while I would crash at my friend’s house, and one day I went over there and she was sleeping on the couch. We were both hobos sleeping on his couch, and that’s how we met.”
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After answering a detailed, 29-question survey, Allen and Miller, 20, were each given a Publix gift card and goodie bags containing shampoo, toothbrush and toothpaste, deodorant, bath soap and condoms. They were also given a resource card that told them where to get help.
Armed with the survey responses from Thursday night — the numbers won’t be available for at least a month — volunteers and professionals working with the homeless in Miami-Dade hope to get a handle on how many unaccompanied young people like Allen and Miller are living on the streets or bouncing from place to place across the county, what their precise circumstances are, and what kind of assistance may be required to stabilize their lives.
“In order to get more services, more funding and more awareness around this issue, we need data,” said Robin Schwartz, executive director of Aqua Foundation for Women, a group that helps combat homelessness among young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
The one-night iCount effort, which focused on locating homeless youths between the ages of 13 and 24, was added on this year to the census of the county’s overall homeless population that’s led annually by the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust and the Miami Coalition for the Homeless.
Between 4 p.m. and midnight, about 75 iCount volunteers fanned out in teams of three and four people to 11 areas around the county from Aventura to Homestead where homeless youths, many of them runaways, are known to congregate.
The volunteers included members of organizations like Switchboard of Miami and the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth, students from Miami Dade College and the University of Miami, and workers from shelters like Lotus House in Overtown.
“We’re just keeping a lookout for any youth that appears to be without a family, maybe even sleeping on the street, just loitering, just hanging out by a building,” said Jacqueline Blanco, 29, one of the Miami Beach Coalition volunteers.
Organizers of iCount made it a point to recruit young volunteers after learning during a trial run last summer that homeless youths did not always trust older adults and professionals.
“We thought students would better connect with the young people that are homeless,” said Barbara “Bobbie’’ Ibarra, executive director of the Homeless Coalition.
Even so, some displaced youths were hesitant to answer the questionnaires, denying they were homeless.
“This population does not like being associated with homelessness,” Ibarra said, adding: "Bouncing from home to home is still considered homelessness because the youth do not have a stable house to stay in."
Under the official iCount definition, an unaccompanied youth is considered homeless if he or she is “couch-surfing,’’ living on the streets, in a car, or in an abandoned building. Common reasons are running away from home, aging out of foster care, or being kicked out of the family home.
The single biggest factor is family rejection of a young person’s sexual or gender identity. Roughly 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or are questioning their orientation, said Carla Silva, executive director of the Alliance for GLBTQ Youth.
About 120 people filled out surveys during August’s trial run, but only around 70 actually met the definition of unaccompanied homeless youth, said Portia Dudley, outreach coordinator at Switchboard of Miami. Organizers hope this formal count will be more successful.
Among those located Thursday by the South Beach team was Jose Mora, 20, who said he has been sleeping next to a building housing the Beach’s homeless assistance office for three months. Mora said he came to Miami from his native Puerto Rico hoping to attend college, only to become homeless shortly after arriving. But he said he recently got a job and hopes to save enough money to secure a place to live.
Marina Aviles, the lead volunteer for the group, spotted Miller and Allen on Lincoln Road around 7 p.m. Unlike some other homeless youths the volunteers located that night, Miller and Allen chatted easily with Aviles and fellow volunteer Brenna Sloane and answered all their questions.
“We’ve been doing this since 4 o’clock, but you are the first two that are from the Beach under 25 and can answer questions for us,” Aviles said.
Miller told how her grandparents, with whom she lived in Warsaw, N.Y., disowned her after she dropped out of school and tried to go live with her mother in a nearby town. Her mother, however, had no room for her in an overcrowded apartment, Miller said.
“At first we were couch surfers, [but] now since we’re pretty much stuck in one area, we’re technically homeless,” said Miller, who sported close-cropped hair and a billowing brown jacket to ward off the cold. “We wanted to be travelers, but it didn’t work out that way.’’
Hours after the interview, Allen and Miller were intertwined with each other under a single blanket, sleeping on a stained building entryway across from SoundScape Park.
Miami Herald staff writer Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.