San Ysidro, a community perched on the U.S.-Mexico border, attracts people who are often in flux.
You’ll find Latinos who have been in the United States for generations, people who cross the border from Mexico every day to work, people who recently crossed into the United States for good – legally or illegally – and people who come from all over to be close to deported loved ones who now reside in Tijuana.
The community’s demographics and its location on the border contribute to a unique set of housing woes. San Ysidro has some of the more affordable housing in the county and lower street homelessness than downtown San Diego, yet its schools have the highest number of families struggling to find stable housing – nearly 1,500 students or a third of the district.
“They’re all here,” said Yolanda Carpio, who runs a program that gives out food to poor families at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in San Ysidro, in Spanish. “The families that have had loved ones deported. The families that need to be here for green cards. The families that have been here for decades. They’re all battling to find housing here.”
San Ysidro is more than 72 percent Latino. Latinos are traditionally underrepresented in homeless counts, even though they experience poverty at higher levels than whites. For example, in San Diego, 23 percent of the unsheltered homeless counted in the 2017 homeless census self-identified as Hispanic or Latino, while roughly a third of the county’s population is Latino.
Language barriers, fear of deportation of an undocumented family member, cultural norms and migratory labor patterns can all keep Latinos from utilizing social services, which is why they tend to be underrepresented in homelessness counts.
According to several national studies and accounts from community members in San Ysidro, Latino families tend to rely on close-knit, kinship-based social networks over agency-run social services. That means fewer families count as homeless under the guidelines set by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, but more tend to live multiple families to a dwelling or in substandard conditions.
In San Ysidro, there are 25 percent more people per household – a sign of overcrowding – than the rest of the county and the state, according to the 2015 American Community Survey.
Carpio said she serves families that she knows have up to 10 people living in a one-bedroom apartment.
“It’s that you just can’t afford to live in a place legally,” she said.
“It’s part of the Hispanic culture,” said Jason Wells, CEO of the San Ysidro Chamber of Commerce and a former member of the San Ysidro Elementary School District’s Board of Education. “You take care of your family.”
Living multiple families to a home – while still having a roof over your head – has its own set repercussions, said Lisa Cuestas, executive director of Casa Familiar, a service provider in San Ysidro. That is especially true in the case of children, who may be more likely to fall ill or be unable to study or do their homework living in overcrowded conditions, she said.
It also means that if a host family has a streak of bad luck and loses its home, multiple families might be displaced, Cuestas said.
Maria, who has struggled to find stable housing – living in either shared living situations or rundown trailers for the entirety of her time in San Diego County – said she believes one of the root causes to her housing woes has been her immigration status. VOSD agreed to withhold Maria’s real name because she is in the country illegally.
She came to the U.S. more than a decade ago, with her daughter and her daughter’s father, who was a legal resident. She came illegally to the U.S., hoping to be able to get her papers in order. Since coming, she has had three more children.
Maria’s story reveals the connection between immigration and housing and how they impede each other.
Maria had an open immigration case many years ago. But she has had to relocate with her children several times, sleeping in the living rooms of family members and friends in homes everywhere from Encanto to Oceanside to San Ysidro.
To this day, Maria said she’s never had her own bedroom in San Diego.
At some point, because of all the address changes, an immigration notice didn’t make it her and she showed up at the immigration office to discover her case had been closed.
“Because we kept moving and moving, we’d get letters from immigration and we couldn’t go pick them up,” Maria said in Spanish.
Maria and her daughter’s immigration cases were closed when they were forced into one particularly bad situation, living in a junkyard that’s not zoned for residents, where they couldn’t receive mail and were limited in coming and going to avoid being caught living in an illegal dwelling.
“From there they closed the case because they saw that there wasn’t a response to anything,” Maria said. “And well, now we’re here without papers.”
She’s taken odd jobs under the table, selling clothes and items donated to her on the street or taking care of children. Her job insecurity and perpetually low wages – she said she can’t demand more due to her immigration status – have been her biggest obstacle in obtaining a suitable place to live for her family, she said.
Then there are cases like that of Gladys Rodriguez, who had her green card and was working in the United States, but living in Tijuana with her son and crossing the border daily because her retail wages made it difficult to find a home she could afford in San Diego. Rodriguez lost her green card last year and found herself living in a minivan with her son in San Ysidro and getting food from a local church while she tried to replace it.
Rodriguez’s immigration status, too, forced her into a Catch-22: She needed a permanent U.S. address for her green card, but she couldn’t afford a place and was unable to continue working until she got her new card.
“That’s the difficult thing,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “I can’t get my green card without an address, I can’t work without a green card and I can’t afford an apartment without work.”
Immigration status can limit some low-income families’ access to public benefit programs that could help them avoid substandard housing conditions.
Undocumented immigrants are explicitly prohibited from federal programs, thanks to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, a major federal overhaul that restricted immigrant access to welfare programs and other federal public benefits, including housing assistance.
Eligibility restrictions for housing programs, like public and subsidized, low-income housing or housing vouchers, make it difficult for anyone whose immigration status isn’t in order to access them.
Even qualified immigrant families living in poverty often face obstacles in receiving aid due to complex application rules, confusion over eligibility criteria, limited English skills and fear that participation may disqualify other family members from obtaining permanent residency. In mixed-status households, fear of deportation keeps undocumented parents from applying for assistance for their eligible U.S.-born children.
As federal immigration enforcement ramps up, these families may creep further into the shadows.
Schools are one of the only public entities that recognize the living situations of many low-income Latino families – like living multiple families to a dwelling or bouncing between relatives’ couches – as homeless, meaning they are one of the only public entities serving mixed-status families. Immigrants and their children may not have the right to housing, but they do have the right to go to public schools. A 1982 Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe, ensured students an equal right to education regardless of immigration status.
Of the more than 1,800 students who were considered homeless in the San Ysidro Elementary School District last year, more than 1,200 had limited English proficiency, suggesting they grew up in immigrant households where English wasn’t the predominant language.
Veronica Medina, the district’s homeless liaison, said she constantly hears stories from families who end up in San Ysidro because of its location on the border. Several of the most vulnerable families she works with, like those living in cars or rundown motels, are led by mothers who came from all over the U.S. to San Ysidro with their children to be close to their children’s fathers, who were deported and now stay in Tijuana.
“So if a family member does get deported, they’re going to want to live close to the border and a lot of the families that we have here are like that,” Medina said. “In San Ysidro, you see it all because we’re so close to the border.”
Medina said even the families who have crossed legally struggle.
“They struggle with finding housing and they go from shelter to shelter just so the kids could have a good education,” she said “They’ll sacrifice everything that they have. I mean, I have a family that is considered homeless, but [the mother] has two jobs and she’s renting a small little room with four kids. But she’s doing this so her kids can get a better education.”
Whatever struggles homeless families face are augmented in San Ysidro, said Aurora Zepeda, executive director of the Institute of Children, Poverty and Homelessness, an advocacy organization.
The fact that Latinos remain hidden when they’re in vulnerable housing situations means that fewer resources and protections will be available to them, she said.
“It’s more complicated in San Diego on the border, so you find it even more pronounced,” said Zepeda, who worked for San Diego County on homelessness issues nearly a decade ago. “Extreme poverty coupled with immigration coupled with underserved communities and overburdened schools.”
Wells, the Chamber of Commerce CEO, agreed.
“Who is driving around San Ysidro and seeing these families?” he said.