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In places like downtown San Diego where there’s a visibly large homeless presence, there’s often a cluster of agencies and nonprofits that serve the homeless, too.
But in the South Bay of San Diego County, the homeless are far less visible – they don’t tend to set up tents or sleeping bags out on sidewalks, steps from business and in full public view. Instead they live multiple families to an apartment, in motels or tucked inside junkyards and storage containers.
And because of the hidden nature of South Bay homelessness, there are far fewer resources there to help struggling residents and families.
Most homelessness funding is doled out by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which lets local agencies and leaders decide where resources go. Those agencies and leaders tend to prioritize resources where homelessness is most visible.
Local agencies use an annual homelessness census to help determine priorities. That count tallies homeless people seen sleeping on streets, in cars and in canyons, then numbers are run through a formula to determine a countywide total. And those numbers paint a misleading picture of who’s struggling in the South Bay and reveals how different family homelessness looks.
South County has the highest rates of child poverty in the county.
Nearly a third of all children in Imperial Beach and National City lived in households with below-poverty incomes, according to 2015 census data. In San Ysidro School District this year, nearly a third of students lack stable housing and are considered “homeless” in the eyes of the district. In South Bay Union School District, 20 percent of students are considered homeless.
The hidden nature of family homelessness helps explain why it’s gotten lesser attention from bureaucrats at HUD and even local officials: It’s more difficult to garner support for a cause that’s not in your face every day.
Agencies that define homelessness more broadly, like the Department of Education, paint a clearer picture of what’s happening the South Bay. Schools count children as homeless if they “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
Between all the public school districts in South Bay, there are roughly 4,000 families struggling to find stable housing at any given time.
According to data from San Diego’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless, the South Bay has 32 emergency shelter beds – only 20 of which are year-round. It has 151 transitional housing units, which tend to be temporary rooms or apartments linked with services to help homeless individuals and families transition into a more stable, permanent housing situation. It has one 41-unit permanent supportive housing project geared toward people with HIV, which pairs subsidized housing with other services, like health care.
That means if someone needs a shelter bed or temporary housing while they’re trying to get back on their feet in the South Bay, they’ll likely need to go to downtown San Diego. The concentration of services, shelter beds and temporary housing downtown forces difficult choices for many families: They can uproot their children to seek temporary shelter, or they can live in substandard conditions so that they can continue to send their children to the same school every day and maintain that semblance of stability.
It also means it can be more difficult for agencies in the South Bay to quickly connect families with help, said Lisa Cuestas, executive director at Casa Familiar, a service provider in San Ysidro. Often it’s easier to get a family a voucher or rental assistance than to find them a bed, said Cuestas.
“It’s more time-intensive to find a bed,” said Cuestas. “So when you have large families that will do everything they can to not be separated is when you really deal with challenges because people will use options like their car to keep their families together. If in order to secure a roof over your head, you have to separate your family – that’s the last thing you want to be confronted with.”
And even with vouchers that go toward rent, it’s hard to find a place to live in the pricey San Diego housing market.
“That’s how desperate it is in San Diego right now,” Cuestas said. “Someone who walks through our doors in San Ysidro has to go to Southeast or North County to find housing.”
Casa Familiar has a few affordable housing projects in the works, including one that will have multi-bedroom units for families, but those projects will be the first to come online in the community since essentially the recession, said Cuestas.
The nonprofit helps operate roughly 1,200 low-income units in the community, but they all have waitlists of up to 12 years. The organization has had to stop adding people to waitlists at some of the apartment complexes.
San Ysidro and National City have no emergency shelters. All those that exist in South Bay are concentrated in Chula Vista – and there are far too few of them to accommodate all the families in need.
Alicia Reyes ended up in Cortez Hill downtown after being evicted from the trailer she was living in with her two kids behind a warehouse in Otay Mesa. Reyes had to make a decision: Move her kids to a school downtown, or continue to send them to school in San Ysidro using bus passes paid for by the district.
Reyes decided, since her kids are 6 and 4, to keep them nearby. They’re now attending the Monarch School in East Village. But she had to pull them out midyear and they missed a lot while dealing with two weeks in a hotel room paid for with a county voucher, moving into the shelter and getting tested and re-enrolled at the new school.
Many families opt for other options, like living in substandard conditions to stay near their kids’ schools or splitting up their families so their children can remain at the same school while they try to find a more stable living situation.
Rick Gentry, CEO of the San Diego Housing Commission, said he’s trying to address the issue on a regional scale, rather than focusing on individual communities like San Ysidro.
“Our approach is that we serve the whole city and we don’t see San Ysidro as different from the downtown or from North Park or from Golden Hill or Barrio Logan or any other part of town, so if there are – and I’m not aware of statistical disparities and lack of coverage down there – we’ll take a look at it,” said Gentry.
Gentry acknowledged that the visibility of homelessness plays a role in who gets services.
“If you look at the traditional location of the preponderance of the visible homeless in San Diego over the years, they’ve been downtown and close by, because this is where services are and it’s fairly easy to understand why a lot of these service delivery systems down here,” he said. “I don’t think there’s been an active or intentional exclusion of anybody, including San Ysidro.”
There are two sources of money specifically geared toward people who meet HUD’s definition of homelessness that often don’t reach the families living in substandard conditions but who aren’t out on the street: emergency solutions grants, which are flexible funds that localities can use for homelessness prevention, shelters and rapid re-housing – a program that helps people find housing by offsetting things like security deposits and helping with landlord relations – and money that comes through the region’s Continuum of Care grant, which is used for different kinds of permanent housing or housing assistance.
Barbara Duffield, the director of Schoolhouse Connections, an organization that advocates for homeless children and families, said what makes a family and child vulnerable is different than what makes an adult vulnerable. An infant can’t sleep on a couch as its family doubles up with relatives, for example, because it’s unsafe, she said.
“It’s as much about perceived vulnerability as it is about dollars,” Duffield said. “HUD and many others have not at all acknowledged that reality. They say, this is what homelessness is, and you can’t be any more vulnerable than if you are on the street without a roof over your head. But for families, that’s just not true.”
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has proposed a bill to try to reconcile the different definitions of homelessness, recognizing that it’s often families and children who lose out on housing resources because they don’t tend to be homeless in the way HUD recognizes. Such a change could increase access to HUD resources for communities like those in the South Bay, with many families hidden away in junkyards, shipping containers or living four families to a dwelling.
Some local housing agencies have received more funding specifically targeted at certain populations, like veterans, but funding to serve low-income families without any other special needs hasn’t seen the same focus.
The county has pulled in some additional funding for short-term rental assistance for families, including a pilot project that will target some resources in the South Bay, but help remains limited.
Meanwhile, both San Ysidro and Chula Vista have high concentrations of housing voucher-holders.
“You’ve seen vouchers for veterans and [the chronically homeless] – which is a good thing — go up, but numbers for families remain stagnant,” said Kathryn Lembo, CEO of South Bay Community Services, the largest nonprofit service provider in the South Bay. “Could it put things in competition? It could. But as a region, we can’t allow that.”
Lembo said her organization has to get creative with funding to help families, since they often can’t rely on HUD funds for many of the people they serve.
“We can’t address homelessness with one funding source or one package,” Lembo said. “Families are not counted in, say, the homeless count. But everyone down here is well aware of their issues. I think the homeless count is a one-time-a-year thing, and I think it’s a good thing that happens, but we can’t make all our decisions on that count.”
One example of non-HUD funding is Promise Neighborhoods, a grant the organization received through the Department of Education, to turn Castle Park Middle School in Chula Vista into a hub for social services. There, members of the entire community – not just those with children enrolled in the school – can access services including classes, food and clothes closets and enroll in public benefits.
Lembo said her organization can also use mental health services or domestic violence prevention grants to counsel families who fall on hard times or child nutrition grants to ensure families don’t have to worry about spending money on food.
But at the end of the day, HUD is the primary government organization that provides funding for housing, and if it doesn’t recognize families as homeless, they’ll have a harder time getting help.
“One of the things we cannot do, though, is revise definitions of how we spend federal money based on necessarily local opinions,” said Gentry. “We’ve got to spend the money in ways that don’t get us in trouble with our funders.”