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A One-Woman Rescue Squad for Homeless Students in Rural Texas

“The fact that there’s this cadre of liaisons who are committed to the program has pushed schools to pay more attention to homeless kids,” said Maria Foscarinis, a longtime housing advocate who lobbied for the 1987 law.

While only about 57 percent of homeless children were enrolled in school when the law passed, the share soon rose to 87 percent.

Still, homeless students do worse in school than other poor students, and their numbers have roughly doubled over the past 15 years. Government figures from 2017 showed that 13 percent of students were homeless in New York and Santa Ana, Calif., the large cities with the highest rates. Nationwide, nearly 80 percent of homeless students are temporarily living with friends or relatives, with the rest in shelters, motels, tents or cars.

Ms. Mercado’s work is emblematic of the program’s expansion of services and has attracted broad support in Bastrop County, a region with conservative leanings. She has supplemented modest McKinney-Vento aid — past grants of $60,000 a year provided about $80 for each student she serves — with other federal funds and private donations.

While some liaisons struggle to get high-level support, Ms. Mercado lauds the district’s leaders for empowering the work, and they laud her. “When you have someone who is so devoted to doing what’s best for students, it makes it an easier decision” to provide funding, said Barry Edwards, the Bastrop superintendent.

Racks of donated shoes and clothes fill a classroom renovated by the Rotary Club, and private donors cover activities that federal rules preclude, including an annual restaurant meal where students practice dining etiquette. Still, Ms. Mercado often spends her own money on food, blankets, caps and gowns, gas cards and beds, and it took an older colleague to urge her to let go at the end of the day.

“When I first started this job, I would get very overwhelmed because you see so much trauma, so much pain,” she said. “Now I’ll say, ‘God, you’ve got the wheel — in the morning I’ll be here again.’”

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