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Different numbers tell different stories about homelessness.
In the latest annual homeless census, homelessness in the South Bay was down 21 percent – the largest drop in the county.
But that count and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development take a narrow view on who’s homeless: They count a person as homeless if he or she is living in a place not meant for human habitation, in an emergency shelter or in transitional housing.
A different homeless count, one done by the Department of Education, paints a more startling picture of thousands of families struggling for stable housing.
For a child to be homeless in the eyes of the Department of Education, they need to “lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
That means if a child is couch-surfing, or if they and their family are living in a motel, trailer park, campground, substandard or overcrowded living situation or in an emergency or homeless shelter – schools consider them homeless.
Sweetwater High School District has about 650 students in unstable living situations. Roughly 20 percent – or 1,473 – of students in South Bay Union are classified as homeless. The majority are living in arrangements where multiple families pack into a dwelling.
San Ysidro School District has the largest homeless student population in the county – roughly a third of its students are considered homeless. That’s about 1,500 students. At one elementary school in the district, more than 40 percent of students live in an unstable housing situation.
This definitional difference has real implications for some of the most vulnerable populations in the South Bay.
Here’s what our months-long investigation into the hidden homeless families of the South Bay found:
Street homelessness isn’t the only kind of homelessness – but some agencies treat it that way.
Traditional homeless counts – and the HUD definition of homelessness – often leave out families. Families will often opt to live in cars, overcrowding situations or even uninhabitable spaces like junkyards and storage containers rather than being on the street. Because they aren’t visible, they often aren’t counted in homeless data sets. The most egregious living situations for families in the South Bay are in industrial areas, where families often face eviction or displacement if discovered by authorities.
Schools have stepped in as social service providers.
Schools have become the primary public agency tracking families in vulnerable housing situations. They’ve also become a hub of services for not only homeless and impoverished students, but their entire families and, even in some instances, entire communities.
The border plays a big role in San Ysidro’s unique housing crisis.
Latinos are traditionally underrepresented in homeless counts, even though they experience poverty at higher rates than whites. For example, in San Diego, 24 percent of the homeless counted in last year’s homeless census identified as Hispanic or Latino, while roughly a third of the county’s population is Latino.
San Ysidro – a migration hub perched on the busiest border crossing in the Western Hemisphere and whose population is 72 percent Latino – faces particularly unique challenges when it comes to homelessness issues, which remain overwhelmingly hidden.
Out of sight means out of funding, too.
The fact that homeless families in San Ysidro and the rest of the South Bay are undercounted has resulted in a shortage of resources like shelter beds and transition or supportive housing. That means takes longer for families to be connected with housing resources when they fall on hard times. It also forces a tough decision on many families between uprooting their families from their communities to go to where services are located or remaining under the radar in doubled-up or substandard living conditions.
You can also get a better understanding of the kinds of living situations these families are in by watching the experience of one mother and children, Catalina Rios.