Veronica Medina sits in an office overflowing with blankets, shoes, and donated school supplies. A native of San Ysidro, she has a perennial smile and wears pink lipstick that accents her jolly laugh. She doesn’t spend much of her workday in the San Ysidro School District offices. Instead, she takes me to the parking lot and jumps into her F-150 Ford truck. This is how she transports donated refrigerators, microwaves, and mattresses to “her families.” The truck also comes in handy for the places she sometimes has to go: the off-road shelters inhabited by San Ysidro’s homeless students.
For the past 11 years, Medina has been the homeless liaison for approximately 1400 students, or 29 percent of the 4800 total enrolled in the district. It is the largest number of homeless students, percentage-wise, in San Diego County. While Medina’s title has changed over the years — she is now the student and family services manager — her work has never changed. Medina says she personally reaches out to at least 1000 of her homeless students every year.
“It’s always trying to get those resources for our children. Getting them enrolled in schools, especially when they don’t have receipts or any proof of residency. I go out and do the home visits so I can see where they actually live and sign the documents at the school sites.”
We drive down from the district offices — many of the buildings still portables — and head toward the San Ysidro port of entry. This is the busiest land port of entry in the world, with approximately 50 million people crossing each year. The roads are narrow and filled with potholes. Tijuana sprawls behind a haze — the giant Mexican flag and the Millennium Arch behind surveillance cameras and border walls. A few blocks away from the port of entry, we pass the Las Americas Outlet Mall, where upscale shoppers and Border Patrol agents coalesce. It’s here, across the street, that a completely renovated Willow Elementary opened its doors in 2010 with 7 new buildings and 44 classrooms, each with its own computer station. It’s also here, across the street, that Medina takes me to a gated trailer park. She says several students live in these trailers, which are not mobile homes, but recreational vehicles. Residents have decorated the outside with potted plants.
Medina says that about four years ago the city closed down the park because the trailers were not up to code, including having expired registrations. The city wanted to find housing for the families, but when officials found out that half of the residents didn’t have documentation, they didn’t qualify for the housing programs.
When the park re-opened, Medina once again helped place homeless families here. She tells the story of how a woman with six kids traveled down from Washington after her husband was killed working on the freeways. The woman had family in Mexico, so she came to San Ysidro where she hoped her children could still attend an English-language school. Then, she found out that if she lived with relatives in Tijuana, her children couldn’t enroll, even though they were U.S. citizens. She ended up living and sleeping with her six children in her Suburban. It just so happened that while using the bathroom one morning at a fast-food restaurant, one of the employees told her to go see Medina.
“I enrolled the kids immediately. I got them school uniforms,” Medina remembers. “The mother got resources to stay at a hotel. She started work right away.”
The family is still considered homeless, because six kids live in one small trailer. Medina says, “At least she’s not living out in her Suburban. She’s a single mom trying to make ends meet. She works in one of the factories out in Otay Mesa. She’s also very grateful that her life has changed in a positive way.... When she first came, she was a wreck. Not only did she have to look after her kids all by herself, but she was left with nothing.”
Next, Medina stops to fill up her truck with gas at the Mobil. The station is next to Interstate 5 and the Frontier Inn, a motel whose pink and yellow paint has faded. Green vines crawl up the front of the building, unable to reach the second floor. A sign announces “Mexican Insurance.” Medina explains that San Ysidro has approximately 15 motels, which often function as last-resort shelters. With the high cost of rents in this area — a one-bedroom averages $1100 per month — living in a motel for months or even years is often cheaper.
The largest challenge families face when living in motels is eviction. When Medina first started the job, she would advocate for her families by talking to the managers. One motel in particular was run down and infested with mice.
“Our kids were complaining about having cockroaches sleep on them. When I went to go speak with the manager, the family was evicted the next day.”
Medina doesn’t contact the managers anymore. “Because if they lose that room, then they have nowhere else to go.”
She explains that along with the lack of affordable housing, San Ysidro lacks a homeless shelter. The nonprofit organization Casa Familiar, which serves the San Ysidro community, offers one transitional three-bedroom apartment for families. They can use the unit for up to three months to stabilize themselves without paying rent. However, the unit has a long waiting list. What’s more, in 2012 Casa Familiar wanted to add 33 affordable-housing units to the area, but the San Diego Housing Commission wouldn’t approve the $1.5 million necessary to fund the project.
Medina drives me to one of the motels, the Gateway Inn, located one block away from the traffic-glutted port of entry. The trolley passes by the motel frequently, carrying approximately 11,000 northbound passengers each day. Last August, the Gateway Inn handed all occupants termination notices. The owner had submitted a request to the City of San Diego to demolish the two-story hotel. About 20 children lived there.
When I knocked, a boy opened the door only a crack. He closed it again, and I waited. Then Rachel slid out, refusing to let me see inside, but I already smelled the odor of diapers and too many bodies in one room.
Rachel, a mother of nine children, has lived at the Gateway Inn for three years. She has long brown hair and tired eyes. She explains that her husband, a construction worker and certified welder, was deported five years ago while in Tracy, California. Rachel moved to the border so she could be closer to him.
She now lives in one room with no kitchen. She cooks using a skillet or microwave. She says the building is in terrible condition. Broken windows are never fixed, the walls have mildew and cement is trapped in the pipes of her bathroom sink.
“The smell in my house is terrible, not because my house is dirty. It’s because the sink stinks. The walls in the bathroom, no matter how many times you scrub it, the darkness of it will not come off.”
She was one of these kids
A rosary hangs from the rearview mirror of Medina’s truck. She tells me, “It’s ironic that I have to do this for our students who sometimes get kicked out, especially if they are in a hotel or they’re couch-surfing. I have to vouch for them. It’s so ironic how I am advocating for children who are just like me.”
Medina, too, was once classified as a homeless student. While attending San Ysidro Middle School in the 1980s, her parents split up. Her dad moved to Tijuana. Her mom became addicted to drugs. Medina spent many nights and weekends alone in a San Ysidro apartment, not knowing where her mother might be. At one point, her mother couldn’t pay rent and they ended up in a hotel. For two years, Medina bounced back and forth between couch-surfing with her mother and living with her grandmother.
At one point, Medina got kicked out of middle school. She was present at a group fight, and they needed to contact her mom. “I had told the principal that I didn’t know where my mom was.”
The principal asked Medina where her father lived and she said Tijuana. He asked again and she answered the same. “They were asking the wrong questions, and I was giving them answers.” Medina gives out her jolly laugh despite the painful memory.
When Medina’s father came to pick her up, the principal said she couldn’t come back to school because she lived in Mexico. It was her grandmother who stomped over to the middle school and told the principal that Medina had lived in San Ysidro all her life. The principal didn’t believe her.
“The counselor actually came to the house and my grandmother showed her the room where I slept. The next day I went to school.”
Once Medina started high school, she began living permanently with her grandmother. Focusing on academics, however, was a challenge. She couldn’t afford school supplies and remembers getting into trouble because she didn’t have paper or pencils.
“The program that I have now, I understand a lot of these students and how sometimes they don’t have certain things, or when their family is broken, and how they’re struggling in class. I used to sit there in class just wondering where my mom was. A lot of family issues weigh on our kids, and we’re pressuring them to do certain things. I remember just sitting there daydreaming one time in math class, and the teacher got really upset. I asked her to go to the bathroom, because I needed to go cry.”
Medina attributes her grandmother’s strict household rules to the reason she remained on a straight-and-narrow path. She attended Southwestern College and was hired as a teacher’s assistant in San Ysidro. She went on to get a human services degree from University of Phoenix and did an internship at the San Ysidro School District’s Family Resource Center. By 2004 she was hired to a newly created Children and Family Project Facilitator position, a job nobody at the district had ever done.
Otay Mesa junkyards
Medina drives onto State Route 905 going east to Otay Mesa where the terrain turns into wide open space. Brown Field’s shabby air-traffic control looms over the landscape. Behind it, auto-wrecking and recycling companies stack car parts in expansive dirt lots. During the weekday, you can hear the crunch of metal coming from the scrap yard. Storage lots, often located along unpaved roads, contain boats, vehicles, and trailers. Medina colloquially refers to all these as “the junkyards.”
A dystopia of sorts, but Medina is unafraid. People recognize her and know she is here to help. She drives her truck off-road, kicking up dust clouds. An unofficial street sign hangs on a chain-link fence. “Pogo Row,” it reads. Medina says a few families have found ways to rent the run-down trailers inside these lots.
The trailers don’t have running water or electricity. Families might use the nearby trucker station to take showers. “When we get a new enrollment, they’ll try to explain to me where they are, but I always need to meet them at the school site; then I follow them, because the address, it’s just so different. The address they give me doesn’t make sense.”
All of them are U.S. citizens, Medina says, but because they are out in the trailers, they can’t demonstrate that they are residing in the U.S. The owners don’t give out any receipts. The agreement is, if you live there, you can’t apply for any kind of services.
“There was this one family that I actually tried to help get food stamps, and as soon as they got them, they were evicted.”
Medina says none of the families are willing to speak with me. They fear eviction. As a consequence, the individuals who rent out these trailers are unknown, the many layers of land ownership, companies leasing the land, and then renting the storage units to others make it nearly impossible to ascertain who might be renting the trailers out to these desperate families.
Doubled up is considered homeless
As Medina drives her Ford back onto Highway 905, the contrast becomes striking. In the distant south, mammoth warehouses straddle the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Nearer to the freeway, housing developers are building single-family homes. A sign reads, “Now Selling Maravilla & Esperanza Luxury Townhomes. Up to 4 Bedrooms.”
On the northern side of 905, a suburban community called Ocean View Hills perches atop a mesa overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Built about 15 years ago, many of the homes are opulent — some have up to five bedrooms, 3000 square feet, and three-car garages. This community defines the American dream. However, there’s a hidden truth at work: many of Medina’s homeless students live two and three families in apartments, condominiums, or in these single-family homes.
At the beginning of every school year, students must provide two bills that establish proof of residency. If they show a bill that is not in their name, they need to fill out a Declaration of Residency & Responsibility and a “McKinney-Vento” form.
Medina is then called to make a home visit. She must verify that the student lives in the housing unit. If they’re doubled up, the owner of the house needs to come in and sign documentation.
According to the federal McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987, the definition of a homeless student includes more than just kids sleeping on the streets. McKinney-Vento says homeless students include those who live in motels or trailers, those who have been abandoned by their parents and are staying with extended family members, and children who live in “doubled up” housing — that is, more than one family per unit.
Back in 2004, San Ysidro Unified School District was one of the first in the county to be awarded a McKinney-Vento grant. They received $390,000 for three years. The district continued to receive the grant every year until 2015. That’s when the U.S. Department of Education said the district no longer met the criteria and they lost the funding.
South Bay Union School District sees no problem
San Ysidro’s neighboring school district, located along the border, also lost their McKinney-Vento funding. South Bay Union School District has a total student population of about 7500. The number of homeless students — per the McKinney-Vento definition—is about 1500.
Pamela Reichert-Montiel, director of student support and accountability, explained, “Our numbers may look similar in total homeless. The difference would be that we collect data on students who are sharing housing with relatives, things like that. Obviously, it’s the same data that everybody collects, but that’s where our numbers are very high. So when you look at motel, hotel, shelters, those types of things, the numbers are much lower. So our total numbers for things like motel, hotel, shelter, transitional housing, or car or campsite actually ends up to be 42 students.”
Sitting in her office at South Bay Union’s headquarters adjacent to Mar Vista High School five blocks from the Imperial Beach Pier, Reichert-Montiel maintains that funds from Title I — a federal program to assist districts with high numbers of students from low-income families — are now used in place of the McKinney-Vento grant, and fortunately they have a good amount of Title I coming in. She says parents in doubled-up situations — such as moms newly divorced moving in with grandparents — don’t see themselves as homeless even though the student information system classifies them as such. The McKinney-Vento definition distinguishes between choice and economic hardship. A lot of the students live with relatives by choice. “I certainly think we do have a population that moves a lot, so I think that there’s a lot of people in temporary situations.”
When asked what challenges the district faces, Reichert-Montiel says, “Attendance. Getting children to school is a big thing. Working on our partnership with parents to see the value in students coming to school every day and coming on time and staying all day.”
She never stopped working
Medina says, “According to McKinney-Vento, when you’re doubled up it is considered homeless, especially when a family of five or six is sleeping in a room.”
She agrees that certain situations are considered “by choice,” but this is why home visits are key. “We only count them when it’s an economic hardship…. We have families that when they rent a room, that’s all they’re allowed to use. Just that one room. You have all the kids just doing their homework in one room. Sometimes they eat in that same room…. If they are all in one room, and it’s a family of four, they are considered to be doubled up, and it’s considered homeless.”
Medina and I continue to drive past the suburban homes on either side of Highway 905 and then head south on Interstate 805 toward the border. Medina tells me student homelessness is a district-wide problem. According to the 2014–2015 data provided by the San Diego County Office of Education, Vista Unified has 4213 homeless students and San Diego Unified has 7588. In San Ysidro, however, Medina has developed her position from the ground up, getting to know her families and understanding their challenges. She’s invested.
Last year, when the district lost their McKinney-Vento funding, Medina was laid off. “But I never once stopped coming to school. I still had all my projects. I had the ‘welcome back to school day’ at the San Ysidro outlets and we gave out over 600 backpacks.”
The San Ysidro School District administration knew their homeless students still needed an advocate. They transferred some funds from Title I and a state program called Local Control and Accountability Plan (usually called LCAP) to create a new position. And although Medina had to go through the interviewing process all over again, she was the top candidate due to her experience. She got the job.
The current funding for homeless students is still significantly less than what it used to be, so Medina tries to pull resources from different organizations. “I’m getting the free uniforms through Operation School Bell…and I’m just trying to branch out to different organizations that will actually help us support our students.”
When we return to the San Ysidro School District offices, Medina parks her Ford in the lot. Directly across the street, palm trees peek out from behind flat roof buildings. It’s San Ysidro Middle School, Medina’s alma mater. Her eyes well with tears as she recalls one of the best moments of her job. She asked a homeless student what he wanted to be when he grew up. He responded, “I want to be a social worker like you. I want to help families like you do.”