When the grant that funded Veronica Medina’s job, working with homeless students and their families, stopped coming to San Ysidro schools, she didn’t.
“I got up and came to work every day,” Medina said. “My kids and my families are counting on me and I’m not going to let them down.”
Medina began working in the San Ysidro School District’s Families First project eight years ago, connecting families with resources ranging from backpacks and blankets to healthcare and food providers.
The San Ysidro School District, which serves 4,842 kindergarten to junior high school students in an area where 90 percent of families are at or below federal poverty level, has an alarming rate of homeless families. Using the definition under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, 32 percent of its 4,842 students are homeless, Medina said. Add in the families where parents are undocumented immigrants (and are excluded from grant availability), the numbers jump to above 36 percent.
“We don’t say homeless,” she says. “It stigmatizes people. Many of my families are living somewhere, living in their cars or in the abandoned trailers at junkyards or in motel rooms that are more affordable than apartments. Some are doubled up with another family or the kids are couch-surfing with friends and relatives. McKinney-Vento means they have no permanent housing.”
Losing funding was particularly devastating for the district because there’s a three year interval for the next chance to apply, according to San Ysidro school superintendent Julio Fonseca.
“These are the most disenfranchised kids in our schools, among the most challenging issues we deal with,” Fonseca said. “Veronica is a tremendous asset to our district, but she can’t do this alone. If we are asking our kids to perform at a very high level, we have to be sure that their basic needs are being addressed: that they have homes and breakfast and lunch, that they know where they will sleep at night.”
Fonseca said the district worked hard to keep Medina in place, cobbling together scarce resources to make sure that families could keep counting on her.
The federal grants, administered by the state Department of Education, are highly competitive. Last year, the department received more than 130 applications for 61 possible grants, a state spokesman said.
State officials declined to discuss the grant selection process, instead providing a copy of the spreadsheet of schools that have obtained funding.
Squeezed at the border
In San Ysidro, the mostly Hispanic, mostly poor neighborhood is smacked up against the U.S.-Mexico border. It has very limited housing stock, which is surprisingly expensive.
“We have an excellent social services group at Casa Familiar, but even they have only one apartment for transitional housing, the nearest shelter is 15 miles away, in downtown San Diego,” Medina said. “Once they go there, I can get them bus passes, but it disconnects kids from their community and they end up in a system where we can’t help them as much as we can when their families are within reach.”
Many San Ysidro residents live there because they have strong cross-border family ties.
“Some of our single parents, their partner was deported and is in Tijuana where they can at least see their families on weekends,” Medina says. “There are moms and dads, grandmas and friends in Tijuana and our families stay in San Ysidro to be close.”
The district stretches through the densely residential neighborhoods of San Ysidro to the sprawling industrial area of Otay Mesa to the east, where acres of auto junkyards punctuate the cross-border shipping firms with their trucks and warehouses.
Medina knows those areas well. Some of her families rent abandoned motor homes in the junkyards – cash rentals done with the understanding that the families can’t use the junkyard address to apply for social and support programs. The landlords don’t give out rent receipts either.
“I go out there all the time,” Medina said. “I go to verify their residences so we can enroll the kids in school and then I stay in touch with the families to see what resources we can connect them with.”
The school has a bus route that runs on the streets where the junkyards are located, she said.
“Most of our homeless kids are in our 6-to-6 program,” she explained. “They come to school every day and get a hot meal. There aren’t any safe places to play where they live.”
To Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association to Educate Homeless Children and Youth, the problems and solutions in San Ysidro are both unique and familiar.
“School districts have been very creative in helping these kids and families,” Duffield said. “While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for every community, there are certain things that we know, and McKinney–Vento is a blueprint that provides a baseline for school districts.”
But, she said, succeeding at affecting the students’ futures and breaking the cycle of homelessness where the kids can become captive comes down to the people who work with the students and their families.
“They rely on the dedication of the staff to have a keen eye and keen sensitivities to recognize when kids are homeless,” Duffield said. ”The teachers and staff have to be discrete and trustworthy enough to allow them to be forthcoming about their living situation and trusting enough to accept help.”
For Medina, getting those students and their families connected to resources is more than a passion. Her own experience as a child adrift – couch-surfing with friends and relatives for several years as her family fell apart, informs her commitment to kids.
“I grew up in San Ysidro. I remember a one room apartment where I shared a bed with my parents and we had a TV,” she said. “My parents divorced and my mom fell in with drugs, so I was sleeping at friends’ houses, with aunts, in a trailer, at a motel. It went on for a long time.”
Medina had trouble with school – it didn’t seem very important then.
“I failed ninth grade, I had more than 60 absences,” she recalled. “Finally, my grandma decided to be my backbone. She told me I don’t want you to be like your mom. I was lucky.”
Medina was able to catch up, and she stayed with the school district, going to work as a teacher’s aide at 19, and eventually going on to earn a degree that helped her launch the Families First program.
“I can empathize with my families and I know how the children feel,” she said. “When they’re little, they’re happy and they don’t see the problems but as they get older and realize how they are living and the other kids start to make fun of them, they often sink into depression.”
The schools see their job as more than getting the kids into their seats, Fonseca said.
“We know that when we refer people to services, they often don’t show up or when they do show up, they’re put on waiting lists,” the superintendent said. “So we are trying to have the services on our campuses. We are bringing mobile health care and we have set up a parents’ resource center where they can learn to use a computer and smart phones, where we have regularly scheduled events with career counseling and counselling from social services, where we have days that we hand out donated clothing and blankets.”
Blankets mean a lot to Medina and Fonseca, who collect, clean, store and give them away at regular events. His first Christmas at San Ysidro, Fonseca asked a student what he wanted for Christmas.
“I was expecting to hear he wanted an Xbox or an iPhone,” he said. “The boy told me he wanted a blanket so he could keep warm during the holiday break.”
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