It’s sunny and dusty and hot on this nearly-barren strip of land to the south of San Diego. From the top of every little incline here you can see thousands of houses on Tijuana’s hillsides, and an enormous Mexican flag waving in the wind. If it weren’t for the 20-foot-tall wall made of rusted metal and concrete cutting off one country from the other, you might think you were in Mexico.
Veronica Medina, the student and family services manager for the San Ysidro School District, is doing what she normally does before the school year starts: driving around in her large Ford pickup truck down long stretches of road and touching base with some of the thousands of families who live in this district. As many as one-third of the kids in San Ysidro’s eight middle and elementary schools are homeless. Despite the seriousness of her job, Veronica is always smiling and laughing, making jokes with the families she encounters. She’s 42, she’s lived here for nearly her whole life, and she seems to have learned that when things are so dire, they could use a little levity.
We pass gas stations and used car dealers, then a small airport for private jets. We turn onto a dirt road towards a sprawling junkyard. The carcasses of cars and trucks stretch in every direction, separated by corrugated metal walls demarcating the boundaries of the several junk companies that operate here. Veronica snakes through the maze of lots, passing security guards looking suspiciously at her truck. She’s trying to find a family that lives here. But she can’t find them. They move lots frequently. She’s about to give up when we’re stopped by a security guard. He tells Veronica in Spanish that the family no longer lives here.
Veronica dials up a number she has saved in her cell phone and Jennifer Gutierrez picks up. Gutierrez, her husband, and her 13-year-old daughter do indeed live in one of the lots. Later, I find out why: The going rate for a two-bedroom apartment in the San Diego area is about $1,300, plus her husband’s mom is sick back in Mexico, so they have to live there to save money. Gutierrez cleans houses a few days a week, but her hours were cut recently. Her husband works at the junkyard crushing cars. Both are undocumented. It’s hard to find better work. They keep their daughter occupied with dance lessons (salsa) and school (she’s an A student). The plan is to wait until their daughter gets a little older and more independent, maybe a year from now, and then start working one or two more jobs so they can save for a real apartment. But for now, this is fine. The trailer has a stove, a refrigerator, a little table for dinner and homework. It’s their mini house; it’s their home.
Veronica asks if we can come to their lot, but Gutierrez says the junkyard will kick them out if they find out anyone from the government (Veronica) or a reporter (me) is there—it’s happened before to another family. So over the phone Veronica reminds Gutierrez that school starts tomorrow, tells her there’ll be an event on Saturday where parents can pick up free backpacks and other school supplies, and turns her truck around.
The visit takes about 20 minutes. Veronica’s hoping to do a couple dozen more before school starts. She can’t visit all of her families, though, because in this school district of about 5,000 students, roughly 1,600 are homeless.
The problems of the San Ysidro school district are in some ways completely unique. San Ysidro is technically a part of San Diego, but it might as well be a separate city. The center of San Diego is about a 30-minute drive away, and its poverty rate is about half of San Ysidro’s. The two cities share little in the way of culture, architecture, or infrastructure. San Ysidro feels closer to Mexico than San Diego, which makes sense, since it’s literally as close as you can get to Mexico without being inside of it. The San Ysidro border crossing is the world’s busiest, with about 30 million crossings a year, and more than 90% of its approximately 30,000 residents are Hispanic.
In other ways, this place is like a lot of places in the U.S.: Since the Great Recession, student homelessness has doubled, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY). There’s no federal database to figure out what percentage of students is homeless in each district, but according to Barbara Duffield, the director of national policy and programs at NAEHCY, student poverty rates tend to be a good indicator. Nationally, only 3% of students are homeless. That makes San Ysidro’s student homelessness rate, at 33%, more than 10 times the national average, and possibly the highest in the nation. The numbers of homeless students in San Ysidro, and everywhere, is likely higher, though.
“Part of the challenge is that these students are invisible,” Duffield says. “They blend in, their families are afraid to come forward, especially if they’re undocumented.”
Much of Veronica Medina’s job is highlighting what’s invisible to most, and, until recently, what’s been actively ignored by the government. Embroiled in a corruption scandal and plagued by subsequent bad press, previous school administrations have essentially ignored the district’s homelessness problem. And six years ago, when the Obama Administration ramped up deportations several families vanished overnight from San Ysidro. One student went home and couldn’t find his mom. It took him a week until he found out she’d been deported to Mexico.
Things might be looking up: Veronica says deportations have decreased recently. Last year, there were more homeless families than there are this year. Under a new superintendent, Dr. Julio Fonseca, Veronica has been given more support and resources than she had in previous years. All things considered, this year is a good one.
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For nearly a decade, Veronica Medina was doing this all on her own—staying in touch with about 1,500 families, year after year. Everything beyond just making sure homeless kids are able to attend San Ysidro’s schools is voluntary. But a typical day, for Veronica, might involve picking up a refrigerator being given away for free on Craigslist or 100 backpacks being donated by a local church. It might involve meeting with teachers who have a tendency to suspend kids when they’re late.
Many days, it just involves driving around the sprawl of the southern tip of California and saying hello. She knows every motel here, every trailer park. About half the homeless kids here are considered homeless because they’re “doubled up”—couchsurfing, living in people’s garages. The rest are divided between hotels and motels, shelters, cars, and trailers being illegally used as homes, which often do not have running water or sewage systems. Those percentages roughly square with the numbers nationally.
Veronica’s been offered jobs that would have paid two-and-a-half times what she makes here, but she’s declined. She has roots in San Ysidro going back four generations.
Her grandmother was born in a house on a hill here in the 1930s that was still in the family until recently. Her dad was born in Mexico. She spoke mostly Spanish at home. Her parents were young, their marriage tumultuous. He and her mom divorced when Veronica was 11. Her dad moved back to Mexico.
After the divorce, Veronica’s mom began staying out late, smoking weed and crystal meth. She was barely home. She fell behind on rent. When Veronica was 13 they moved into a hotel where her mom worked at the front desk; they ate off hot plates. At first, Veronica thought it was cool—there was a pool, someone cleaned your room every day. Then kids at school began making fun of her. She began missing class. She started gaining weight.
After a few months of homelessness, Veronica’s grandmother told Veronica she’d have to move in with her and leave her mom behind. The transition was tough: One day in eighth grade, Veronica’s principal asked her where her parents were. She told him she had no clue where her mom was, that her dad was living in Tijuana. The principal said she was no longer considered a resident of San Ysidro, and so she couldn’t come back to school. The next day her grandma came in and yelled at the principal. A school counselor arranged to visit Veronica’s grandmother’s house to make sure she actually lived here.
“She was looking through all my stuff,” says Veronica. “She went through my underwear drawer. It felt like a violation, like ‘Why is this person doing this? I live here!’”
Eventually, with the help of her grandma, she got back on track.
“That’s why I can empathize with our students now,” she told me. “When you don’t care about what’s actually happening with their families, you’re going to lose them.”
Veronica started working in the San Ysirdro School District at 19 years old, first as an instructional aid, then as a special ed instructor. In 2006, the school got its first McKinney-Vento grant of $125,000. The grants, funded by the federal government, are meant to help districts educate homeless students. It allowed the school district to finally create a position to deal with its homeless population.
But McKinney-Vento is perpetually under-funded. Not every district gets a grant every year and the application and decision process is opaque. Last year, San Ysidro failed to meet the application standards in its grant request. Veronica’s position was almost eliminated, until the district’s new superintendent stepped in. He found money for Veronica. He also made her the head of a new office, and put eight people—former instructional aides, a bus driver, a PTA leader—under her supervision. This year is the first full school year Veronica won’t have to visit hundreds of families on her own.
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The Gateway Inn is a two-story, dilapidated L-shaped building with a parking lot that’s reserved for tourists who want to walk across the border. This is where Rachel Quintana, 37, has been for three years. She has nine kids who live with her in the room, which looks like any hotel room, except for the full-sized refrigerator, the bunk beds, and the pullout bed. A Mexican flag and broken blinds cover the room’s front window.
Quintana used to live in the Oakland area. But about five years ago her boyfriend of 16 years, who is undocumented, was stopped by police. They referred him to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which ordered his deportation. He ended up in Tijuana, and that’s how Quintana and her kids ended up in San Ysidro. A lot of the area’s students are here because one of their parents were deported; it’s the closest they can get to the border. Many families first attempt to live in TJ, as the locals call it, and cross into the school district every morning. But with increased border security, the journey can take hours. So instead they live in places like the Gateway Inn, or they move on to another town.
Quintana’s oldest kid Armando tells me he doesn’t mind living here. He just wishes his dad could, too. Quintana and her kids take clothes and some food to him once a month, rolling a shopping cart across the border. It takes hours, plus they need money if they get a cab at the border, so the trips are becoming rarer. Still, Quintana is hoping to marry her boyfriend eventually. I ask where in TJ he lives, and she points to the thousands of houses a few miles away, stacked against a steep hill topped by a large radio antenna on the Mexican side of the border. “You see that antenna?” Quintana asks. “He lives right under that.” You can almost see his house from here.
A few weeks later, Quintana calls Veronica crying. Everyone at the Gateway is being evicted. She tells Veronica she’ll have 60 days to find a new place to live.
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On the first day of school, hundreds of kids stream in through the front doors of Sunset Elementary with their parents in tow. Veronica and a few of her helpers are handing out bottled water and pamphlets on different services the school will provide this year. Veronica and Superintendent Fonseca are trying to turn every school into a “full-service community center”—bringing in doctors, dentists, food banks, housing nonprofits, and anyone else they can get their hands on. Almost none of that is here yet, but it’s coming.
Veronica runs around, checking in with teachers, hugging parents who remember her from years prior. She tries to meet with her 11-year-old son’s new teacher, but by the time she gets upstairs to the classroom, the teacher is busy telling the students to get in line by order of height. She’s strict. Veronica likes that.
Veronica makes her rounds to a few other schools. Everything is running smoothly. At the end of the day, she checks in with Nancy Alvarado, a fifth-grade teacher at Willow, one of the schools with the highest density of homeless kids in the district. Alvarado does a rundown of what she saw today: There were 23 kids in her class, down from 36 last year; she noticed most had uniforms on and that most of them fit. A few were faded, though, and some students had shoes that were falling apart. One kid was anxious about buying school supplies.
Alvarado will keep an eye on those kids, the ones with torn uniforms and old shoes. Maybe one day she’ll ask, away from the other kids, if they can bring a form home to their parents. It will put them in the system Veronica uses to keep track of her homeless families. There are only two or three kids in her classroom she’ll need to keep an eye on. That’s not a bad ratio at all for San Ysidro.
Back in Veronica’s big truck on the way to her house east of San Ysidro, I ask her if things have gotten better since she was a kid. Yes and no, she says. She remembers being little and her grandmother jokingly telling Veronica to duck every time a car with deportation police drove by. She remembers decades ago when police would pull over any brown-skinned person they saw in San Ysidro, including Veronica once at a gas station. She still carries her birth certificate in her glove compartment in case it happens again, but it hasn’t. In that way, things are better—there’s a little less fear, people are a little less ashamed of San Ysidro being what it is.
But in other ways it’s the same: People are still being deported. There are still thousands of homeless families, people are being evicted regularly, there’s not enough housing, and anti-immigrant rhetoric seems to be ramping back up again.
So after some consideration, she changes her answer to my question: “Not really.”
“It just hasn’t gone away,” she says. “It’s always been like this.”
Peter Moskowitz is a writer based in New York. He’s writing a book about gentrification for Nation Books/Perseus.