Edgar Sarceno pulled into a grocery store parking lot on St. Michael’s Drive and thought, step by step, about how to survive.
Inside, he bought a foam cooler, ham and bread. During weeks when he received a paycheck from running food at Outback Steakhouse, he could eat two sandwiches a day.
“I handled it not day by day, but hour by hour,” Sarceno said. “If I wasn’t sure I was going to get paid, I would ration.”
Then Sarceno drove a car through the neighborhoods surrounding Santa Fe High School, looking for places to sleep. A blanket covered the clothes strewn across the back seat while the rest of his life was locked in the trunk. He learned which skate parks or side streets were safe and never spent back-to-back nights in the same spot.
“If something sketchy happened one place, then I would never park there again,” Sarceno said. “I was very technical.”
At the age of 17, in June 2018, Sarceno said he left a difficult situation at home to live out of a Toyota Camry registered in his mother’s name. Homeless and alone during the summer before his senior year of high school, he ate ham sandwiches and slept in the car — and never stopped dreaming of college.
That dream is about to come true. Sarceno next month will start his freshman year at Bates College, a liberal arts school with about 1,800 undergraduates, in far-away Maine. Thanks to intense academic focus and a willingness to ask for help, not to mention the generosity of others, he survived and thrived.
Teachers, tutors and mentors who know Sarceno say they were shocked to learn of his back story this winter and have been inspired by the depths of his determination. At a town hall in Santa Fe last month, Sarceno told part of his story to about 100 education advocates, drawing tears from some and a standing ovation from all.
“He’s got incredible resiliency. He’s had a lot of adverse experiences, and as life has opened up to him, he’s been able to take the skills that he acquired in coping with adversity and apply them to benefiting from the good times,” said Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation President Hervey Juris, who helped Sarceno with his college and scholarship applications. “He’s very hardy and has a great deal of tenacity when it comes to reaching his goals.”
Sarceno, now 18, said he has not spoken to his mother since leaving her home last summer. Repeated efforts to contact her for comment were unsuccessful.
Sarceno said he has lived in Santa Fe his entire life and moved several times — attending three different elementary schools. At De Vargas Middle School, he said he became set on success through academics.
“The second I hit middle school, it was a race,” Sarceno said. “Like I landed on my feet running towards my goals of going to college.”
Sarceno planned on a senior year full of Advanced Placement courses and college applications, but those plans were interrupted by the need to find a bed. He spent the summer of 2018 skateboarding to clear his head after late-night restaurant shifts and wondering how to ask for help.
“I knew once school started that I couldn’t keep living in a car,” Sarceno said. “I didn’t tell my friends, but I let them come to the conclusion that I was homeless. Like, ‘Dude I can’t afford that right now, let’s go somewhere else,’ or I’d wear the same clothes. That was the only way I knew how to open up.”
Sarceno said he lived at two friends’ houses during parts of the fall semester but left both times because he felt like a burden. In school, he had to lighten his workload, which he said originally included eight Advanced Placement classes. After school, Sarceno volunteered as an elementary school tutor and community organizer throughout high school.
But during the fall semester, those commitments started to fade.
“I hated lying to them,” Sarceno said. “But I couldn’t tell them, ‘I can’t come to work at your organization because I’m homeless.’ ”
In December, Sarceno said he said he was driving by Santa Fe High after a shift at a new job at Discount Tire when the car that had doubled as the roof over his head for most of the past six months broke down.
At the time, he didn’t know where he would sleep or how he would get to work.
That’s when he finally stopped to ask for help.
He turned to Rayna Dineen, the director of Reading Quest, a nonprofit where he had worked as a tutor. She helped find a Santa Fe High family to offer him a place to stay. He confided in his superiors at Discount Tire and some of their family members, who, along with some Reading Quest board members, organized enough money to buy him a Ford Fusion.
“As soon as we were able to get Edgar in a house and with a car and a phone, the very next day he called me and told me he had a friend who was also homeless and asked if we could maybe help her,” Dineen said. “That’s the first thing he did. He wanted to share. The first thing.”
Sarceno is not alone in his homeless experience, nor in his struggle to reach out. According to Santa Fe Public Schools, 1,107 students were reported homeless in the district during the 2018-19 school year. Public Education Department data shows 13,286 students in the district in 2018-19, which means more than 8 percent of its students were homeless at some point.
The real statistic, district officials say, most likely is much higher.
“I would probably go as far as to double that number,” said Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools. “Those numbers are almost always underreported. Families that are undocumented don’t want to report. Others just don’t know there are resources available to them when they report.”
According to Public Education Department data, in 2018 the four-year graduation rate for homeless students in the Santa Fe district was 51.3 percent, or about 22 percentage points below the district rate. The district says “homeless” designation applies to children, teens and their families staying in shelters, on the streets, in cars or camping due to domestic violence, abuse, addiction, sexual orientation or other challenges.
The designation also can refer to children living with someone other than their parent or permanent guardian; families living in substandard housing; families being evicted or having their utilities disconnected; youth who have run away or been kicked out; families who have doubled up with other families in tight living situations because they can’t afford a place of their own; and children waiting for foster care placement.
Within the Santa Fe school district, the Adelante program registers students under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and draws funds from community organizations to provide additional support such as clothing, school supplies and tutoring, and referrals for mental health, housing, medical and other social service needs.
The district says it does not have enough resources to ensure all homeless students have all the support they need.
“We have to work with other agencies and nonprofits to provide these wraparound services to our kids,” García said. “We don’t have all the social workers or access to the health clinics we need. If we find out there is domestic abuse in the home and need for temporary housing, we don’t just have that.”
Amid the hardships last fall, Sarceno still managed to apply to a dozen colleges. Through a fly-in program at Bates geared toward attracting first-generation college students, he traveled to Maine, toured the campus, spoke with current students and was sold.
He was accepted in March with a full-ride scholarship and will enroll in August, he said.
He is not sure if his mother knows he is bound for college and does not share many details of his relationship with her.
“When I was a kid, I had a lot of pain in my heart, so I used to think, ‘I’m going to go as far away as possible,’ and Maine was as far as I could go,” Sarceno said. “I focus on the positive, though. I know that one day I will get my degree and come back.”
He said he is leaning toward studying engineering but wants to keep his options open. He talks about running for office in Santa Fe to be a voice for kids on the street someday.
For now, there’s still another month in Santa Fe. He said he will spend time on the ledge downtown where he used to sit after a long shift at a restaurant; the park by Santa Fe High where he took his first date; the skate park where he first felt the rush of the intricate trick of dropping in.
And from behind the wheel, he has come to call Santa Fe’s streets home.
“When you go home and you relax and sit on your couch or your bed and you feel at home, that’s what that Camry was, that’s what this Ford is,” Sarceno said driving down West Zia Road. “I think that’s why I know these streets so well. Driving was my distraction, and my car was my home.”
Bates College is a 2,400-mile and 35-hour drive from Northern New Mexico, but Sarceno plans on taking much longer. Scrolling through the map on his cellphone at the skate park behind Genoveva Chavez Community Center, he highlights a route that passes through Denver, then meanders through Tennessee to Atlanta before turning up the East Coast toward Maine .
One more drive to turn his college dream into reality.