Central Elementary School in City Heights is shown on June 9, 2023. It is one of the sites being considered in a proposal to provide camping and overnight parking for unhoused students and their families on district property. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

San Diego Unified is considering a proposal to open city-sanctioned camping and overnight parking on district property to accommodate unhoused students and their families following newly released data that shows a dramatic increase in unsheltered homelessness. 

This comes as San Diego officials rush to open alternative locations for people without housing to live while pushing a ban on camping around schools and other areas.

Why this matters

Research shows children experiencing homelessness have lower academic outcomes and significantly higher rates of emotional, behavioral and immediate and long-term health problems.

While talks are still early, the district hopes to partner with the city of San Diego and local organizations to provide short-term and long-term housing solutions for its families. Central Elementary in City Heights, the Ballard Parent Center in Old Town, and a parking lot across Cardinal Lane near Linda Vista are being considered as potential sites.

At least two of those sites are considered surplus property. Central Elementary is getting a new campus, with the existing site planned to be used for teacher and employee housing.

Parking lots may be open as early as this summer, San Diego Unified board member Richard Barrera, confirmed to inewsource. The proposal is not yet scheduled for board approval.

“Homelessness is a real issue not only for our district,” he said Friday. 

More than 11,500 of the city’s students in kindergarten through 12th grade were reported to be homeless during the 2021-22 school year, according to local nonprofit Alliance San Diego. Nearly 8,500 attended San Diego Unified schools, while the rest went to other districts that also serve parts of the city. 

The largest cluster of homeless students — more than 3,000 — were located in Councilmember Vivian Moreno’s District 8, which includes San Ysidro, Barrio Logan and other neighborhoods. About 1,200 kids who attended the San Ysidro Elementary School District were reported as homeless.

Council President pro Tem Monica Montgomery Steppe’s District 4 in southeast San Diego had nearly 2,800 unhoused students, while some 1,700 resided in Council President Sean Elo-Rivera’s District 9, which includes communities such as Normal Heights and the College Area. 

For weeks, San Diego officials have pushed for a ban on camping in public spaces, pointing to the growth in tent encampments across the city that they say threaten health and safety. The latest homeless census, released Thursday, showed nearly 3,330 San Diegans living on sidewalks and in riverbeds and canyons — the highest recorded in at least a decade. 

Mayor Todd Gloria has been trying to drum up support for the ban, including holding a press conference at San Diego Unified’s Perkins Elementary near downtown, highlighting the traumatic experiences of children walking into the street to avoid encampments on their way to school. 

“On the way, they see things kids should never have to see,” Gloria said in a press release.

The proposal to use school district property for unhoused people is included in Gloria’s comprehensive shelter strategy, although when the sites will open, how many families will be helped and how much it will cost hasn’t been determined. Gloria is expected to provide a presentation announcing these potential solutions Tuesday. 

Students play and talk on the playground at Perkins K-8 School in Barrio Logan on April 7, 2023. (Kristian Carreon for inewsource)

Barrera said San Diego Unified can develop housing for its employees using district bond funding, but it cannot directly provide housing to its students. But a partnership with the city and others opens up the possibility of a workaround: School property could be leased to partners that could then offer it to district families for housing, he said. 

“This is a crucially important issue for the district,” Barrera said. 

The city already has a community action plan on homelessness, but it hasn’t been fully implemented, said Erin Tsurumoto Grassi, policy director at Alliance San Diego. Instead of piecing things together in a “desperate attempt to do something,” she said the city should update the plan and put it to work. 

“We need the City Council to lead,” Tsurumoto Grassi said. “We need the mayor to lead… the solution is there.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Andrea Figueroa Briseño is an investigative reporter at inewsource and a corps member for Report For America, a national service program that tasks journalists to report on undercovered communities and issues. She covers education and focuses her reporting on Latino students and families who are part...

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official, Cody...