Armando and his eight siblings wake up to the sound of the trolley passing by their motel room window every morning, and attempt to fall asleep as it passes by throughout the night. They live at the Gateway In less than half a mile from the San Ysidro border crossing.
Considered the man of the house, Armando helps his younger siblings get ready for school in the morning and makes sure they all get there safely when his mother, Rachel Quintana, needs to care for her 6-month-old baby.
The family moved from Oakland to San Ysidro where they are able to 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 not at all.
She said “safety-wise,” the area is not where she wants her children to grow up, adding that “anything goes” when you live so close to the border. However, living in less-expensive Tijuana was not an option because she wants her children, born in the United States, to finish their education in English.
CalWORKs provides Quintana with money to cover the motels monthly rent, but she picks up odd jobs like cleaning and recycling to pay for diapers, food and clothing.
Her children attend Willow Elementary, where almost half of the students enrolled are considered homeless.
The districts 5,263 students draw not only from the hilltop ocean-view suburbs and a historic core, but from miles of industrial yards that surrounds one of the busiest land border crossing on earth.
The district has had the highest percentage of homeless students in San Diego County for more than five years. At the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, Student and Family Services Manager Veronica Medina reported that 1,692 of the 5,263 students attending San Ysidro schools were considered homeless.
The federal McKinney-Vento Act requires districts to report any students who “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This means living in substandard conditions like shelters, trailers, cars, motels or most frequently, “doubled-up” with other families in single-family homes or living with extended family for financial reasons.
Citing numbers from the 2013-14 school year, a grant proposal written by the district in 2015 reported that 78 students were living in motels or hotels, 112 students living “unsheltered” in cars, motorhomes or trailers and 41 students living in shelters or transitional housing. 1,637 students were reportedly living “doubled-up.
Where discrepancies occur
Although there’s a standard definition of homelessness, it’s left up to district officials like Medina to interpret, which she said may be the reason for the district’s high numbers.
Districts are required to identify and report these students to the county, but there isn’t a standard process to do so. They can choose to identify homeless students by using registration forms, surveys or letting parents identify on their own.
Michelle Walsh, the coordinator of student support services at Vista Unified, said San Ysidro’s high percentage was “surprising.” She said districts count homeless students “very differently,” emphasizing that students considered “doubled-up” must be in that situation temporarily, not long term, to be counted as homeless.
“If they’re doing it because of economic hardship, like they lost a job or had surgery, and they plan on moving out on their own, we would count it.” Walsh said. “Now if grandma needed help, or it was generational, we would not count it as homelessness.”
Leanne Wheeler, the state coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth Program, said it’s not easy to ensure the numbers collected by districts are correct. She depends on homeless liaisons like Medina to ensure an accurate accounting of homeless students, specifically in a “doubled-up” situation.
“I can’t speak for all districts, because there’s over 1,600 LEAs (local education agencies) in the state and I’m only one person,” Wheeler said. “That’s kind of my hope, that everybody looks at a doubled-up situation in the same way.”
She said families need to be counted as living “doubled-up” because of financial hardship, but there is no way to verify that on the state level.
Homelessness in the classroom
Willow Elementary School teacher Nancy Alvarado said she also has “mixed feelings” about the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness. However, she said it’s beneficial for teachers to know if a student lives in substandard conditions to make sure students get the help they need.
“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.
Alvarado emphasized the importance of understanding the broad meaning of homelessness defined by the McKinney-Vento Act.
“Every once in awhile I will get a child that’s actually totally, completely homeless, as in living in shelters or cars.” Alvarado said. “Not all the children that are classified as homeless fit that description.”