Inside the California border town where one-third of students are homeless
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, Inside the California border town where one-third of students are homeless | Fusion: