School districts often paint a rosy picture of life within their bounds. They mention their students’ high test scores, teachers with advanced degrees and forward-looking principals in the hope of attracting new families. So one San Diego County school district stood out late last year when it sent an open distress call.
In November, the San Ysidro School District announced that almost one-third of its children — the largest percentage in the county — had no reliable place to lay their heads at night. Acting on a vote by the school board, Superintendent Julio Fonseca called on Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency.
The situation was dire for the elementary school community of San Ysidro. Its 5,263 students draw not only from hilltop ocean-view suburbs and a historic core, but from miles of industrial yards that surround one of the busiest land border crossings on earth. What many were unaware of was that San Ysidro’s desperation had recently sharpened.
State officials rejected the district’s request for a $375,000 grant to help homeless students — money San Ysidro had been relying on for more than 10 years.
One San Ysidro family had been benefiting from this much-needed assistance for almost three years. Elena is a mother of two young girls, a third-grader at Vista Del Mar and an eighth-grader at Ocean View Hills. inewsource is not using the mother’s real name. The mother asked that the family’s identity be protected because her daughters’ friends and teachers are not aware of their living situation.
Elena and her daughters live in a four-door Kia Sportage, calling the streets of a middle-class suburban neighborhood home. A friend living in one of the houses in the area — Elena says she’s “more like a sister” — lets her bring her girls inside at 5 a.m. every day when she leaves for work so they can shower and get ready for school.
The family sticks to a strict routine. After school, the girls do homework at a park or watch a DVD on a 6-inch monitor in their car until it’s time to go to sleep and do it all again the next day. The family occasionally has dinner at a friend’s house, but more often than not, their car’s backseat doubles as a dining room.
“I want stability for them,” Elena said of her daughters. “I know that sounds crazy in the situation we’re in, but at least I know they’re growing up in one school with teachers they know.”
When the school district lost the state grant, it could no longer give the family clothes and other necessities. Elena said they are worse off than they were a few years ago for a number of reasons.
Elena, her husband and her daughters lived in North Carolina before moving to Tijuana in 2012 so her husband could apply for legal documents to work in the United States. That didn’t work out.
Within a year, Elena and her two girls, all of whom are U.S. citizens, moved to San Ysidro where they could go to school. With little to no affordable housing in the area, the family found refuge in the junkyards of Otay Mesa where they lived until early this year.
“I want to make sure that they get further than I was able to,” Elena said, describing the girls’ education as her “No. 1 goal.”
The family slept in their compact SUV alongside a friend’s junkyard piled high with heavy machinery and car parts. On cold nights, another of Elena’s friends would let the family share a twin bed on the floor of her RV tucked-away in the junkyard and use the portable toilet outside.
Otay Mesa is home to thousands of acres of industrial land, much of it crowded with junkyards and auto repair lots. Several students in the district call these places home.
At night, through the gaps in the chain link fence, you can see trailers with lights shining on the asphalt, and hear the rumble of generators powering lights and television sets.
“You would hear things at night and you were always having to make sure that everything was safe,” Elena said. “But it was better than what we’re doing right now.”
In February, city of San Diego officials forced Elena and those living near her to leave. She knows few details, but remembers being told she had to leave because it wasn’t safe.
Every weekend the family drives to Tijuana where they can “just chill” and have a family night with her husband in his one-bedroom apartment.
“She’s all over him on Friday nights,” Elena said about her youngest daughter. “We go over there, and we’re just there. We don’t do anything but be with him.”
She said adjusting to this lifestyle has not been easy, but small accomplishments like perfect attendance awards and her daughter simply raising a grade from a C to a C+ motivates her to keep going.
“That’s stability to me, that’s what I value the most,” Elena said.
Which students are homeless?
School districts are required by federal law to identify students who lack a “fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
The vast majority of students without such residences are in a situation where their parents have temporarily squeezed in with someone — a friend or relative — who does have a roof.
If the arrangement is voluntary, or if it’s to help out a relative by pooling funds, it’s not homelessness.
But far more often, adult guardians are, in the words of the law, “sharing the housing of other persons” due to loss of housing. Medina asks whether a family “doubled up” following a job loss, which qualifies for help from the school district, as does being driven from housing by infestations or by physical abuse or drug abuse by someone where they had been living.
Medina said if a child is homeless or classified as an unaccompanied minor, it is not sufficient basis to report the situation as child abuse or neglect, according to federal law.
Keeping track of the kid
For more than 10 years, Veronica Medina, a San Ysidro native and graduate of the school district, has acted as a bridge, connecting students like Elena’s children with the district. Medina has the title of student and family services manager, and she knows where every one of her neediest students lives, with whom, and what their families are having to do to get by.
Medina said most of the district’s families living in junkyards, trailers or motels are doing so for their kids. Although the places may not offer ideal conditions for doing homework, maintaining hygiene or leading a normal life, most parents agree it’s a sacrifice they are willing to make if their children have access to a good education.
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, the San Ysidro School District received funds to hire Medina in 2005. She set about establishing a program called Families First, which sought help from the community and local social service agencies including Casa Familiar, which provides families with housing for three months while they look for a permanent home.
With the funding, she was able to provide backpacks for students who could not afford them, as well as blankets and mandatory school uniforms for families like Rachel Quintana’s.
Quintana and nine of her children, aged 6 months to 13 years old, live at the Gateway Inn, a motel 1,200 feet from the bustling San Ysidro border crossing. They wake up to the sound of the trolley passing by their motel room window each morning and attempt to stay asleep as it passes throughout the night.
The family moved here from Oakland so the children could visit their father, who was deported to Mexico 10 years ago. Quintana said it was important that her children have a “part-time dad,” rather than none at all.
Considered the man of the house, son Armando, the eldest, helps his younger siblings get ready for school in the morning and makes sure they all get there safely when his mother needs to care for her 6-month-old baby.
She said the area “safety-wise” is not where she wants her children to grow up, but living in less expensive Tijuana is not an option because she wants her children, born in the United States, to finish their education in English.
Quintana said she can afford her monthly rent with help from CalWORKS, a state assistance program, but she picks up odd jobs including cleaning and recycling to pay for diapers, food and clothing.
Her children go from the motel to Willow Elementary, where almost half of the students meet the federal definition of homeless. Where the Quintana family stays and the junkyard homes of other students are both within the city limits of San Diego, the fifth richest city in the country, according to a 2015 USA Today ranking.
Grant request rejected
In 2014, the kids in San Ysidro school district benefited from $114,737 under McKinney-Vento. For the 2015 to 2018 cycle, the district had asked for $375,000 or $125,000 a year.
Instead it got none, even though it has the highest percentage of children in San Diego County who, in the words of the federal law, “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” It’s a distinction the district has had for more than five years.
A state education official said San Ysidro’s grant application didn’t measure up against other districts because it was poorly written. With Medina’s salary almost wholly dependent upon the state money, her position in the district was cut.
Complaints from the community and families who needed Medina soon followed, prompting the district to reallocate money from its general fund to create her current position.
To understand how a place this precarious could be left out of a pool of funds intended to take the edge off homelessness, it is important to know how McKinney-Vento funds are distributed. First, it’s not based on need.
California Department of Education official Leanne Wheeler said applications may get a few extra points based on need, but the quality of the application is what counts.
“If school districts don’t write a really good application, or they write a good one but there are ones that are even better, we put the applications in order from highest scoring all the way down to the lowest scoring. And when that $7 million is allocated, we draw the line,” Wheeler said.
School districts can apply for a McKinney-Vento grant every three years, and of the 130 districts that applied last year, 61 received funding. These included three in San Diego County — San Diego Unified, Santee and Vista Unified — as well as the San Diego County Office of Education.
To screen the applications, the California Department of Education relies on a group of volunteer grant readers. Medina was adamant that her grant application was well written and complete. Having been a grant reader in the past, she described the scoring process and the way readers are selected as unfair.
“They’re not actually experts in reading grants,” Medina said. “The people who got invited to read the grants are the ones who were competing against each other.”
Medina said the process seemed “more personal” this time around. As a grant reader, she said you aren’t allowed to read your own grant, but having it known that you’re there usually affects the score your district receives.
“Right there, when I first heard I wasn’t selected as a reader, my heart knew that we weren’t going to get funded,” she said.
The failed grant application was the first Medina had written alone. It fell to her after several employees in the district’s business department left after being placed on leave following a state audit critical of the district’s spending of federal money.
Wheeler said the audit and the fact Medina wasn’t chosen as a reader had nothing to do with the district being passed over for funding.
“I believe at the time that Veronica finally got [back] to us, we already had sufficient number of readers,” Wheeler said. “It had nothing to do with an investigation, an audit or anything like that. I don’t know anything about that.”
Wheeler said those who were selected to read the proposals were outside experts as well as school district representatives, some of whom submitted funding proposals. She does her best to have several people review them, she said.
San Ysidro’s need
San Ysidro officials believe need should play a bigger part in the grant process.
“The reason that you go after these competitive grants, or these types of grants for service, is because you have a high need,” said Superintendent Fonseca, who has a doctorate in education and a master’s degree in social work. “It should be an impartial review of what was written, regardless of what was presented.”
When the application was submitted in 2015, San Ysidro reported that 32 percent of its students were homeless.
Of the three San Diego County school districts that did receive grant money in the most recent round, Vista Unified had the highest percentage of homeless students — 10 percent, according to Michelle Walsh, the district’s student support services coordinator.
inewsource asked the California Department of Education for a list of the 2015 grant application readers and the grants they scored. The department denied access to the information, saying it would “create discomfort and fear among current and future grant proposal readers.”
In the 2013-14 school year, the San Ysidro elementary district reported 78 students living in motels or hotels, 112 students “unsheltered” in cars, motorhomes or trailers, 41 in shelters or transitional housing and 1,637 students living doubled-up, which can mean they live with friends or extended family.
At Willow Elementary School, teacher Nancy Alvarado said it’s important for teachers to know if a student lives in substandard conditions, so they can adjust their expectations and responses to the children.
“If I know kids are motel hoppers and I know that they’re not doing homework because they’re helping mom collect recycling to make money for dinner, it’s unrealistic for me to say, ‘Oh, I need a 500-word essay by tomorrow,’” Alvarado said.
Following the public distress call, Fonseca said San Ysidro is restructuring and reorganizing its budget using money originally allocated to the general fund in an attempt to help its homeless students. A letter from Gov. Brown’s staff acknowledged the area’s need for affordable housing and said he would continue to monitor the situation but rejected the call for a state of emergency.
Although school officials may not be able to provide housing, they are still dedicated to helping provide for students’ basic needs including food, uniforms, backpacks and school supplies.
“The needs of the kids don’t go away because we don’t get a grant,” Fonseca said.
Help for families
The superintendent recently joined the San Diego Regional Continuum of Care Council, a group focused on ending homelessness in the region. He said the group is being as “creative as possible” to locate resources, hoping he can be an advocate in bringing these resources to the families of San Ysidro.
Families like the Sandovals.
Fernanda, a fourth-grader at Ocean View Hills, and her younger brother, Robert, a third-grader at Vista Del Mar, call an industrial yard in Otay Mesa home. They live in a trailer in a truck yard surrounded by loose gravel and a 10-foot-high chain-link fence. Their father, Omar Sandoval, supervises the lot and inspects trucks crossing from Mexico before they head north. Part of the vibrant cross-border economy, Sandoval is proud of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism insignia on his blue, collared shirt.
Because their father’s 12-hour shifts start at 6 a.m., a family friend takes Fernanda and Robert to school and brings them home each day. Instead of playing soccer like they would like to, the kids do homework inside the RV and afterward play videogames on their father’s desk, which doubles as a dining room table.
Just a few steps outside the trailer’s front door, trucks maneuver in and out of the yard and are positioned in compact rows as the day comes to an end.
“We would live in Ocean View Hills if we could,” Robert said softly, an abrupt change from his naturally energetic tone. Fernanda nodded in agreement, but added, “It’s kind of fun here.”
The children’s father said: “I do what I can. I’m slim on resources. But that’s just part of my life right now.”
inewsource reporter Ingrid Lobet contributed to this report.