At the Rayburn House in Washington, D.C. last month Irene Sauceda stood on stage for a House Congressional Children’s Caucus briefing and spoke through tears and shaky knees about her experiences growing up homeless.
According to the National Center for Homeless Education, there were 85,155 homeless children and youth enrolled in public schools during the 2010-2011 academic year. Sauceda, an anthropology freshman at Texas State, has become an advocate for them through the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. The organization provided her the opportunity to form friendships with students from across the nation who grew up homeless.
“I didn’t think a lot of other kids my age were going through the same thing,” the San Antonio native said. “It made me happy but sad at the same time. Why was this happening? Why is this a problem?”
Sauceda’s education is paid for through scholarships, loans and grants. She is still homeless during school holidays when she cannot stay in her dorm, and the journey from homeless child to college student and advocate has been rough for Sauceda.
The last time Sauceda had her own room was for a few months in second grade. An invitation to eat with friends or family members at a restaurant would usually end up with Sauceda, her mother, nephew, niece and sister staying the night with that person. Sauceda and her mother continued to “couch-hop” until the end of her fifth grade year, when she and her mother made the decision to go to a shelter.
This was the point when Sauceda realized she and her mother did not have a home.
Sauceda said the Dwyer Avenue Center in downtown San Antonio took her and her mother in immediately and gave them their own room. The “dorm-sized” room was equipped with a bunk bed, toilet and bathtub built inside the wall, and a small stove, refrigerator and television.
“Everything was miniature. It was so cool, but then again I was only 10,” she said.
Though she and her mother had a place they could call home, Sauceda said she “shut down” and became introverted. She was accustomed to moving and did not believe in making friends anymore for fear of never seeing them again.
However, Sauceda said life for them began to look positive when the shelter later moved the two into a discounted apartment complex on the north side of San Antonio.
During the year she and her mother lived in the apartment, Sauceda said the shelter employed her mother as a receptionist and she was eventually promoted. With the money saved, they were able to move to a west side apartment complex on their own after the previous lease had expired.
Sauceda said they were content for a while, until “everything disappeared” when her mother had a liver infection and had to be hospitalized for a month, leaving her alone in the apartment.
Feeling like she had nowhere else to go, Sauceda said she asked friends at Jefferson High School if she could stay with them until her mother was discharged from the hospital.
Sauceda’s mother was released from the hospital with news from her doctor that she would no longer be able to work. She had already lost her job and apartment.
However, Sauceda said Dwyer Avenue Shelter continued to help. It moved them to an apartment complex for pregnant teenagers and homeless families on the east side of San Antonio, owned by the George Gervin Youth Center’s Transitional Living Program.
This sense of stability gave Sauceda the chance to make friends, significantly improve her grades and participate in on-campus organizations, such as the Girl Scouts pilot program Gamma Sigma Girls.
Sauceda said she learned about the college preparation process with the help of many San Antonio Independent School District faculty and staff.
“I actually didn’t know about college until my junior year and that was the first time I checked my class rank,” she said. “…I didn’t know what going to college meant really. I was so oblivious to the fact that you could continue your education after high school. That just blew my mind. I just love learning so much.”
Sauceda said though she graduated No. 7 in her high school class, it was difficult to convince her mother that college and living on-campus were the best choices for her. If Sauceda moved out of the apartment, her mother would have to leave and move in with her eldest daughter because of George Gervin Foundation rules applying to homeless families.
“I felt so bad but I told her, ‘If you want to go anywhere, if you want to get any better than you are right now, then you have to let me go and try to help myself first. That way I can try to help you later,’” she said. “It was just really hard. She eventually understood and was really excited for me.”
Since graduating high school, Sauceda said she is working for the National Association for Educating Homeless Youth as an advocate and would like to have a career in social work.