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.