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Meet Austin’s Homeless Students’ Guardian Angel

Austin Texas has an angel on earth that goes by the name of Norma Mercado.

Ms. Mercado is a one-woman rescue squad, always going out of her way to aid homeless students and their families. She has a gift for keeping homeless students in school but is also a source of food, clothes, transportation, and counsel for them and their relatives.

Ms. Mercado is part of a federal program that was established under the Mckinney-Vento Act, a 1987 law. Under the act, every school district must appoint a “liaison” like Ms. Mercado to protect homeless students’ rights.

Up until last year, only one district in four received money for the program. With the pandemic harming poor students, Congress last year approved $800 million in new grants, more than tripling the funding for three years and auguring an era of innovation in services for homeless children, as reported by The New York Times.

For Ms. Mercado who has been doing so much with whatever she has to work with, this money was like winning the lottery. She hired a second caseworker and a contractor to provide mental health care.

But as with many Covid-era relief, temporary funding makes planning difficult. What happens when the money runs out?

Ms. Mercado simply pledged to soldier on.

“Whether there’s a lot of money, or no money, students need us so we’re going to be there,” she said.

Few liaisons are so saturated with work as Ms.Mercado, who has 759 children in her, serving 6% of the students in the district. Her caseload shows how profoundly the lack of stable housing threatens education. Most of her students sleep in shelters, tents, and unheated trailers, after wearing out welcomes among family and friends.

“How can you go home at night and not worry about these children?” Ms. Mercado said in an interview with the New York Times while recounting her personal experience with homelessness.

Joining her mother, an undocumented farmworker, on a trip from Mexico to California, Ms. Mercado survived homelessness on both sides of the border and sexual abuse from a relative. At 15, she became pregnant, her mother threw her out and her baby was stillborn.

She was undocumented, alone, and afraid.

Pushing through, she gained legal status through an amnesty passed in the1980s and is now pursuing a Ph.D. writing her dissertation about homeless liaisons.   

Her journey has helped her look past students’ traumas, to see “the strong, resilient people they can become.”

“I know how it feels, being homeless, being poor, being pregnant as a teen,” she said. “These students just need someone to tell them they are smart enough, they are beautiful enough. They deserve the very best.”

And the very best is exactly what Ms. Mercado delivers. Often using her own money to provide food, blankets, caps and gowns, gas cards, and beds.

One of the many students Ms. Mercado has taken under her wing is Louisa Perez, who was placed in foster care at an early age and later sexually assaulted. She arrived pregnant at Ms. Mercado’s office three years ago after being released from a mental hospital. 

Ms. Mercado provided Ms. Perez with clothes, took her to the doctor, and held her hair back when morning sickness caused her to vomit. After losing her pregnancy – when a boyfriend kicked her in the stomach – Ms. Mercado urged her into counseling and away from her violent relationship.

When Ms. Perez couldn’t endure normal classrooms, Ms. Mercado placed her in an alternative school. And later when Ms. Perez ran away with a boyfriend, Ms. Mercado went looking for her and supplied her with a laptop, as reported by The New York Times.

“Miss Norma has been there for me more than my own mom,” Ms. Perez said.

Ms. Perez is currently living with her boyfriend and his grandfather, and she is regularly in school for the first time since seventh grade. She is on track to graduate this spring and arrives most days to talk early to Ms. Mercado, whom she calls “my sweet escape.”

“That’s what drives me,” Ms. Mercado later explained, “to see these students get hope.”

Written by RA News staff.


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