For 17 days, water from the park’s sprinkler system woke James up at 3 a.m. as it splashed him in his face.
Eventually, law enforcement found the 17-year-old Kendall boy and brought him to Miami Bridge, a shelter that seeks to give youngsters a second chance through counseling and other services.
“This place is awesome,” said James, who didn’t want his last name used. “It helped me improve a lot. Before I was a bad kid, but right now everything is good, I’m doing good. Before I didn’t take school too seriously; now that’s my main focus.”
James is taking advantage of programs at Miami-Dade Public Schools aimed at providing as stable an environment as possible for homeless students trying to stay in school. During the 2012-2013 school year, about 6,500 students were identified as homeless by Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
“We can keep them in the same school and give them aid,” said Raquel Regalado, a Miami‐Dade County School Board member. But, not every teen wants to ask for help because some feel “shame associated with being homeless they don’t want to say they’re homeless or couch-surfing.”
A January 2013 street count of the county's homeless population, conducted by the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, revealed that young people 18 to 24 make up 0 .8 percent of areas homeless population. Meanwhile, the 25-to-34 age group made up about 9.2 percent of the homeless population.
“It’s rare to see teenagers at shelters,” said Regalado, who also sits on the board of directors for the Chapman Partnership. “A lot of them are staying at a friend’s house.”
Sometimes the teens are scared that seeking help will lead to them being sent back to the place they're running from, or the family that rejected them.
The reasons for teens homelessness can extend from abusive home environments, to parents and guardians not being accepting of the teens sexuality, said Jerry Jones, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
“In almost every case it’s people running away from an even worse situation,” Jones said.
James has an A average at Mater Academy Charter School. He works as a school security guard, and has set a goal to attend Florida State University to study business.
“I have school settled, I have a job settled, but a home is next,” James said.
To keep him from living on the street, or in a shelter, some volunteers with Miami Bridge have offered to take James in while he looks for a permanent place to live. But James will officially age out of Miami Bridge on Christmas Day, when he turns 18. That means he can no longer stay at the facility.
As luck would have it, on Tuesday, just in time for Christmas —and a day before his birthday —he found a place to call his own.
James’ fall into homelessness can be traced to when, at age 15, he learned that the women he thought was his mother was actually his grandmother. And his birth mother was actually the woman he thought was his sister.
The troubled family history proved too much for the teen to absorb emotionally. He moved in with his birth mother, but soon began skipping school and dealing drugs, and was eventually arrested for selling marijuana.
“I ended up on the streets for 17 days because my mom kicked me out and I was on probation,” James said.
James would hang out with friends during the day, steal from Publix to eat and sleep on park benches at night.
“I didn’t want anyone to know what was going on,” he said. “I didn’t know of any resources, didn’t have a phone to call anybody.”
His wake-up call came when police found him in the park and took him to Miami Bridge.
“Young men like James usually end up couch-surfing or take odd jobs so they’re not on the street,” said Mary Andrews, executive director of Miami Bridge.
“I don’t want to live on the street, that’s my biggest fear,” James said. “I have to be successful.”
Since homeless youth may not be aware of all the resources, organizations such as Stand Up for Kids Miami have taken on a hand-on approach when dealing with the population.
In January, the group, which runs a program targeting at risk, homeless and runaway youths —began visiting Lemon City Park twice a week last year.
Volunteers cook for roughly 40 teens who regularly attend park events. They have guest speakers talk to the teens about career options, give information about sex ed, financial aid and even homelessness.
“Our first night out, we had 16 kids sign in,” said Candace Drummond, executive director of Stand Up for Kids Miami. “The next week, we had 25 kids. By the third week, there were more [kids] than slots on the sign-in paper. And there were 32 slots.”
Stephanie Paul, 17, said she appreciates everything the organization is doing for her community.
“Most of these kids aren’t homeless,” said Stephanie, a Miami Edison High sophomore, who lives in Lemon City with her family and occasionally helps out at the park. “They just don’t go home often.”
She also talks to the kids about services that available.
By making the teens comfortable enough to open up the organization has helped about a dozen homeless and runaway teens in Lemon City find proper resources over the past six to seven months, Drummond said.
Meanwhile, James is looking forward to his future. He does have one piece of advice for teens who may have fallen on tough times: “Don’t do illegal things,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
“I did two years of dumb stuff and now I have been paying for it for the last year,” James said. “My past is my past. I can’t change it, but I can be what I see inside myself in the future.”