29% of the San Ysidro student population is homeless, often living in motels and junkyards.
Reposted for Homeless Awareness Day.
By Barbara Zaragoza
Veronica Medina went from being an A student to an F student while at San Ysidro Middle School. It was right around the time that her parents split up. Her dad moved to Tijuana and her mom became addicted to drugs. Medina spent many nights and weekends alone in an 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.
That was back in the 1980s.
For the last nine years, Medina has been the homeless liaison for approximately 1,408 students, or 29% of the 4,832 total enrolled in the San Ysidro School District, the largest student homeless population percentage-wise in the entire county. Her title has changed over the years— she is now the Student & Family Services Manager—but her work has never changed.
“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.”
She also actively solicits donations from community members, businesses and organizations for food, clothing and school supplies. On any given day, you might see Medina driving her truck around the district, where she keeps items such as donated refrigerators, microwave ovens and mattresses to bring to families in need.
San Ysidro continued to receive the grant every year until last year when the district no longer met the criteria and lost the funding.
The San Ysidro School District was one of the first in the county to receive a McKinney-Vento grant back in 2006. The district’s grant writer, Mary Ann Saponara, applied and was awarded $390,000 for three years. San Ysidro continued to receive the grant every year until last year when the district no longer met the criteria and lost the funding. Medina was laid off.
With students still in need, administrators quickly decided to transfer some Title I and LCAP funds to create a new position. Although Medina had to go through the interviewing process all over again, she was the top candidate thanks to her experience and got the job.
During the months that she was laid off, Medina said, “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 six hundred backpacks.”
Still, the current funding for homeless students is significantly less than what it used to be. She says she probably won’t be able to pass out the $10,000 worth of uniforms anymore.
Medina says she personally reaches out to at least 1,000 homeless students every year. “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. “
When Medina was in seventh grade, she got kicked out of middle school. “I was present at some group fight and they needed to contact my mom. I had told the Principal that I didn’t know where my mom was at.”
The Principal then 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.”
The Principal called her father, who picked her up and she was told that since she lived in Mexico, she couldn’t come back to school. Furious, her grandmother 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.”
Medina started living permanently with her grandmother when she began attending Montgomery High School. Focusing on academics, however, was often 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 they’re back and forth and how they’re struggling in class. I used to sit there in class just wondering where my mom was.”
“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 they’re back and forth 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, so I asked her to go to the bathroom because I needed to go cry.”
Medina says her grandmother’s strict household rules is the reason why she remained on a straight-and-narrow path. She graduated from SDSU and soon thereafter was hired as a teacher’s assistant in San Ysidro. When Medina was about twenty-five, her mother cleaned up. They now have a good relationship.
Medina’s own story makes her want to give all her San Ysidro families a leg up. She recalls how a mother with six kids had traveled down from Washington after the father had been killed working on the freeways. The mother had family in Mexico, so she came to San Ysidro where she hoped her children could still attend an English-language school. 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 in the 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… Now they live right across the street from Willow Elementary in one of the trailers. They’re still considered part of the McKinney-Vento program because it’s six kids in one small trailer, but 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.”
Thanks to the McKinney-Vento Law, the definition of a homeless student includes more than just kids sleeping on the streets. Medina explains that homeless students are those who have been abandoned by their parents and are staying with extended family members, children who live in motels or abandoned trailers, and children who live in ‘doubled up’ housing.
…homeless students are those who have been abandoned by their parents and are staying with extended family members, children who live in motels or abandoned trailers, and children who live in ‘doubled up’ housing.
Medina takes me on a driving tour in her truck, showing me where her students live and the challenges they face: in particular, eviction. San Ysidro has a high number of motels, approximately fifteen, where many homeless families live. With the high cost of rents in the area—a one bedroom averages $1,100 per month—living in a motel for months or even years is often cheaper. Medina knows of twelve families staying permanently at one of the San Ysidro motels.
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 loose that room, then they have nowhere else to go.”
She next takes me to a trailer park across the street from Willow Elementary where about fifty to sixty students live. She recalls that about four years ago the city closed down the park because the trailers were not up to city codes, including having expired registrations. The city wanted to find housing for the families, but when they found out that half didn’t have documentation, they didn’t qualify for the housing programs.
Other trailer parks are hidden away in back alleys. Accommodations might be tight, but often parents don’t want to fill out the McKinney-Vento form because they don’t want to be classified as homeless. Once Medina explains that they can receive services, they are more willing.
Located on the Otay Mesa hill where a large number of auto salvage & storage lots contain run down trailers, a few homeless families have found a way to rent them. The roads are unpaved and the trailers often don’t have running water or electricity. Families might use the nearby trucker station to take showers.
Families who live in the junkyards, however, aren’t eligible. Located on the Otay Mesa hill where a large number of auto salvage & storage lots contain run down trailers, a few homeless families have found a way to rent them. The roads are unpaved and the trailers often don’t have running water or electricity. Families might use the nearby trucker station to take showers.
“When we get new enrollment, they’ll try to explain to me where they’re at, but I always need to meet them at the school site and I follow them because the address, it’s just so different. The address they give me doesn’t make sense.”
Although all of them are U.S. citizens, Medina says, 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.”
A large number of Medina’s homeless students also live doubled up in houses. “The cost of living is so expensive, we have families that are sharing apartments. We have three families in three bedroom apartments.”
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 not only need to fill out a Declaration of Residency & Responsibility, but also 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.
Medina explains that along with tight housing conditions, San Ysidro lacks a shelter. The non-profit organization Casa Familiar offers one transitional 3-bedroom apartment for families who can use the unit for up to three months to stabilize themselves without paying rent. However, the unit has a long waiting list.
David Flores of Casa Familiar explains, “Different motels around San Ysidro are really functioning like some of those last resort shelter places. Very low rents, but very low amenities. Some of them without kitchens. I’m not sure if we can try to figure out a solution by having those private commercial property owners process something so that they can transform their places and have them become official shelters.”
In 2012 Casa Familiar had a vision to create two affordable housing complexes: Los Abuelitos, a 23-unit building that would serve seniors who are primary caretakers for their grandchildren, and ‘Living Rooms at the Border,’ a 10-unit building with flexible sizes from studios to four bedrooms.
Casa Familiar secured a grant from a New York non-profit called Parc Foundation, which would match any money given by the city one-to-one. When Casa Familiar presented the $3 million project to the City of San Diego’s Housing Commission, they wouldn’t approve the $1.5 million funding necessary, saying it was too expensive.
With the McKinney-Vento funding gone, Medina is trying to pull in 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.”
Medina anticipates her homeless students will go without many of the services she used to provide: the special trips to Padres games and Toys-For-Tots during Christmas. She says, “It basically left us with nothing.”
If you would like to donate to the San Ysidro homeless, contact the San Ysidro School District and ask for Veronica Medina. They are always in need of school uniforms. Back to school starts in July when she runs a free backpack event as well.