This is Part One in a series on the hidden homeless families of San Diego’s South Bay.

The evening of Jan. 29, 2014, 15-year-old Noemi Mendez and her older brother Elias stepped off the curb into a crosswalk as the walk signal flashed.

At the same corner, a semi-truck carrying produce from Mexico made a right turn as its light turned green. The driver didn’t see the teenagers. The front of the truck knocked Mendez to the ground. As her brother tried to help her flee the truck’s path, the side of the truck knocked Elias back and the rear wheels ran over Mendez, killing her.

The accident occurred in Otay Mesa, a heavily industrial section of San Diego that borders Mexico.

The story was big. But the traffic collision report from the police and media coverage focused on one specific aspect of the gruesome incident: that Mendez was on her phone while crossing the street.

Those reports missed a tragic part of the story – the reason two teenagers were walking in an industrial area where few pedestrians ever go.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Mendez had been walking home from school when she was killed.

Home was a junkyard in Otay Mesa.

The address given to police by Elias was an auto repair shop, surrounded by scrapyards. At the time of Mendez’s death, her family was in a living situation that dozens of families in San Diego County are forced into each year: They lived in a trailer parked in a junkyard.

Junkyards, storage containers and unused plots of land have become refuge for people who can’t afford to live in San Diego. Families like these represent the county’s hidden homeless.

Families can’t make rent in residential areas for a variety of reasons. Sometimes family members have mixed immigration statuses, so they face barriers in accessing public benefits and jobs that pay enough to afford rents that increasingly take up larger chunks of San Diegans’ pay. Sometimes parents have jobs, but because of credit problems, a history of incarceration or the number of kids in the family, they aren’t allowed to rent what they can afford.

What families like the Mendezes have in common is that they will do anything not to end up on the streets with their children. But many of the makeshift housing solutions they craft to avoid the streets are illegal.

And they’re illegal for good reason, as Mendez’s death illustrated.

The painted crosswalk where Mendez died was partially worn away. There were no yield signs nearby. The roads in the part of Otay Mesa where Mendez was killed are not built or maintained for children walking home from school.

Photo by Gabriel Ellison Scowcroft
Photo by Gabriel Ellison Scowcroft
Noemi Mendez was struck and killed by a semi-truck in Otay Mesa in 2014.

On top of the area being unaccommodating to pedestrians and residents – because there aren’t supposed to be any of the latter – other families in similar situations are living in small, cramped spaces, breathing in pollution, living with increased fire hazards or without access to things like running water.

When cities discover people living in such situations, they take action to end it – often through code enforcement, fining property owners and requiring them to vacate anyone living in the unpermitted area.

Every so often those code enforcement cases provide a glimpse of some of the county’s most desperate living situations, like a sea container found in Chula Vista or storage containers near Nicoloff Elementary School, which has one of the highest concentrations of homeless students in the South Bay Union Elementary School District, fully furnished and hooked up for electricity.

Mike Richmond, the deputy director of San Diego’s Development services who oversees code enforcement, said code enforcement officials are supposed to not only interact with the property owners, but also with tenants.

“In cases involving extreme uninhabitable substandard conditions,” said Richmond in a statement, code enforcement is supposed to work with tenants and other departments in the city, like the city attorney’s code enforcement division, to ensure the renters are relocated.

“During that process, tenants are provided with contact information for the San Diego Housing Commission Affordable Housing Resource Guide,” Richmond said.

That guide includes information on housing vouchers, subsidized housing and homeless shelters throughout the city. The problem: As soon as a family loses the space they were renting, a seven- to 10-year waiting list for housing vouchers or a low-income unit isn’t much help. There already aren’t enough shelter beds to accommodate San Diego’s homeless, and many have concerns over staying in shelters – a particular problem for families, who often avoid shelters because they are worried about safety or being split up.

In practice, kicking families out of inhospitable living situations can prove an inelegant solution. Homeless families tracked by the school district say they haven’t received help when they’ve been booted from makeshift housing.

Cities are obligated to enforce the law and to protect families from dangerous living environments. But the people who live in junkyards, rundown trailers and storage containers are often there by necessity. The landlords, junkyard owners and hotel operators offering shelter may be predatory, but they’re providing a roof at a price point where few low-income families can find homes to rent.

♦♦♦

In the past two years, at least three families with kids in the San Ysidro School District have been displaced from junkyards or similar properties because the owners were cited by city or county officials, said Veronica Medina, the school district’s homeless liaison.

Alicia Reyes and her two children had to leave the trailer they were living in, tucked behind warehouses in Otay Mesa, when a worker fell through the skylight. Reyes’ father worked in the warehouse and lived in a separate RV on the property.

Reyes was already enrolled in a welfare-to-work program through the county. A program employee helped her figure out how to get an emergency hotel voucher and placement in a shelter downtown for a few months, by having the man who let her reside behind the warehouse write her an eviction notice.

Reyes said she never even came in contact with the officials who said she couldn’t live in the trailer.

“They never talked to me,” Reyes said. “I would have had no help, but I got lucky.”

Reyes was already in contact with the county’s safety net. Other families aren’t so lucky.

One family ended up sleeping in their SUV on the street after city officials cleared out the junkyard they were staying in last year, said Medina.

Last summer, the county shut down a 10-acre unpermitted RV park between the county jail and state prison in Otay Mesa. Roughly 25 trailers were parked in the area for years and evicted because the property owner, a member of the Otay Mesa community planning board, was illegally using the property.

The property owner, Melyvn Ingalls, told inewsource last year, “A lot of them are just barely over homelessness, and I thought I was really being helpful. They’re not paying high rent.”

The county’s action against Ingalls hurt the people living on the property most.

Martha and Andres Delgadillo had lived on the property for two years with their daughter and grandson. The family played $360 a month to park their trailer there.

After they were forced to leave, the only place they could find for a comparable price was in Jamul, nearly an hour drive from San Ysidro, where they now pay $400 to park their RV on a ranch property with a few other residents.

“It caught us by surprise because they had made us a contract just like in any other trailer park,” Martha Delgadillo said in Spanish of the eviction. “We were looking and looking and we couldn’t find anything. Then we found, on the ranch, some people that thank God put us here, even though they barely knew us and that’s what saved us. If not we would really be on the streets.”

The Delgadillos had to split from their daughter and grandson after they were thrown off the Otay Mesa property. Those two moved in with another family member in Chula Vista, so the daughter could continue to commute to Clairemont Mesa for her job and so her son could continue to attend his school in San Ysidro.

The nearest school district, San Ysidro, has had students residing in junkyards for years. This year, at least three families with children in the district resided in Otay Mesa junkyards. Last year, there were half a dozen.

Medina said that in her 10 years of working as homeless liaison for the school district, she’s come across roughly 60 families in junkyards and other properties not fit for housing.

Some of the junkyards where families are living are on publicly owned land.

Below is a map of locations where where students in the San Ysidro school district are known to have stayed while they were enrolled in school. These areas are a combination of junkyards, industrial storage spaces and trailer parks.

If you include the number of students in extreme overcrowding situations and in motel rooms, Medina said she probably deals with hundreds of students a year.

In 2011, the school district even created a special bus route to pick up one student living in the junkyards who didn’t have transportation to get to school.

Families pay anywhere from $150 to $700 under the table to live in junkyards, Medina said. Sometimes they have running water and electricity, but often they don’t.

In motels in San Ysidro, like the Gateway Inn near the border that was shut down last year, families sometimes spend upward of $800 a month for a single room. That’s also the same general price for a small trailer in a rundown trailer park.

When you’re poor in San Diego County, you actually end up paying more per square foot for your apartment than most everyone else.

While many of these families work or receive public assistance, the only apartment they could afford would be a one-bedroom or a studio. Yet those are often unattainable because of the number of children in a family, the immigration status of a parent, eviction history, bad credit or a history of incarceration, said Medina.

Some families in the junkyards, Medina said, have to pay a nearby truck stop to shower. She’s heard of families paying up to $5 per person to shower.

In early April, Medina said she took one child living in a junkyard to a truck stop to shower. The child’s mother hadn’t sent the child to school for a week because they’d been unable to shower.

Sometimes families in junkyards can’t receive public assistance because junkyard owners won’t allow them to put the address on welfare paperwork, since it’s illegal to be living there. Medina said one family she worked with was booted from a junkyard for trying to receive food stamps there.

Though junkyard owners are profiting from these families, they’re not all bad. Some of the owners provide jobs to the families living on their properties. Many of the families find their way to junkyards because they have family or friends employed there.

And while some of the junkyard owners charge up to $700 a month, they don’t charge security deposits, require additional bedrooms for each child or do credit checks, requirements typical of many apartments that can keep families out.

♦♦♦

Junkyards as housing aren’t exclusive to Otay Mesa.

Photo by Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft
Photo by Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft
This storage site in Otay Mesa was once home to a student in the San Ysidro School District.

Catalina Rios, the mother of four children, three of whom attend school in San Ysidro, spent a year and a half in a junkyard in Chula Vista.

Rios crossed over from Mexico with her ex-husband and her young daughter 15 years ago. She had three more children after getting to the United States.

Rios has never had a stable living situation as long as she’s lived in San Diego County.

She started living with her entire family in her mother-in-law’s living room. They were all thrown out of the house because there were too many people living there.

Rios drifted through several other shared living situations throughout the county – from Encanto to Oceanside – before ending up in the junkyard in Chula Vista several years ago.

She found out about the junkyard through her brother-in-law, who worked there at the time.

Her family spent almost two years there. They paid $150 a month.

“The first day was hard for me,” Rios said in Spanish of her time in the junkyard. “Because there was no bathroom. There was no water in my trailer. There was no light. It was really difficult to get to that trailer. During the first day, it made us all really afraid. … We cried, my children and I.”

She said she had to sneak out early in the morning to take out the trash or go to a little store nearby and buy a gallon of water and food so no one would see her. They couldn’t keep the lights on for very long in order to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

“I suffered a lot to make sure that I had food for my kids,” Rios said.

One day when she was at a park while her kids were in school, Rios ended up discussing her living situation with a woman, who eventually helped her get a trailer in a trailer park in San Ysidro.

Rios and her four children shared the broken, cockroach-infested trailer with another family for three years, paying $300-$400 a month. In March of last year, the owner of the trailer told her she had a month to leave because he wanted his son and his family to move in there.

“It’s really difficult to go through all of those situations, and even more when there’s kids involved,” said Rios a year ago, when she was looking for a new place to live. “Kids suffer, too. They suffer when you don’t have anywhere to live.”

She eventually was able to buy her own trailer and rent a different spot in the same trailer park.

Medina still has families coming to her with eviction notices, left to fend for themselves with the same barriers that landed them in a junkyard or illegal living situation to begin with. Often it’s because their landlord broke city rules, or because they were living in industrial areas or an overcrowding situation or their rented trailers weren’t properly registered.

“These families – there needs to be a better system to help them,” Medina said. “Most of them aren’t even counted as homeless.”

♦♦♦

In February, a jury awarded the Mendez family $10.75 million after a lawsuit went to trial. The family blamed the truck drivers’ negligence and poor infrastructure – a faded crosswalk and defective light signal – at the intersection for Mendez’s death. Despite police and media outlets blaming the accident on the teenager’s cellphone use, the jury found that Mendez wasn’t at fault for her death.

Until the discovery phase of the trial, nobody had asked why two teenagers were walking around a highly industrial part of the county, where there are no homes, schools, stores or restaurants.

Even then, it wasn’t a central part of the case, which focused on the driver’s negligence. The family’s living situation was only revealed in a deposition and not discussed in trial.

    This article relates to: Homelessness, Housing, Immigration, Must Reads, News, South Bay

    Written by Maya Srikrishnan

    Maya Srikrishnan is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She writes about K-12 education with a focus on equity. She can be reached at maya.srikrishnan@voiceofsandiego.org.

    6 comments
    steve gross
    steve gross subscribermember

    there are so many issues intertwined in this story.  As a business owner and involved person in the otay mesa area for over 20 years, there are a few observations i would like to make.

    1)  You speak about the overcrowding in the schools and some basic services being provided by the schools in the south bay region.  There is a large student population of students who cross the border daily from tijuana to san diego, just to attend school.  They use "false" or temporary address.  This is not fair to the students who live in those districts and whose education has to suffer because of this influx of students who have no legal right to be taught in these school districts.  They also absorb and take up a lot of the services that are being mentioned in this article and subsequent articles written by the voice of san diego.

    2)  If you think the problem of kids vs trucks is a problem now in Otay Mesa.  Just wait.  The city rezoned hundreds of acres from industrial to residential in the last few years and hundreds of single familly and multi family residential units will be built immediately adjacent to all the industrial buildings, trucking yards and yes 1000's of trucks that use otay mesa daily to transact business.   Though all these issues were "fought" out in otay mesa by interested parties over the last 15 years the City still approved this new updated Planning Document a few years ago.  

    3)  I am not going to comment on the homeless issue, as i have no expertise on that subject.  But allowing people to live in dangerous situations in the long run does not benefit any of us.  People living in junk yards, onr unzoned vacant property, needs to be dealt with and not let the issue be swept under the rug.

    lorisaldana
    lorisaldana subscriber

    Thank you for this report. Hard to believe this is happening in the 8th largest city in the United States.


    Hidden homelessness is an epidemic that impacts not only these families, but our schools at many levels. Students often can't learn due to stress, poor health, inadequate/poor quality food etc. Then they drop out of school or move so often they fail to graduate for other reasons. 


    This is true in many parts of San Diego County as people live in converted/clandestine garages, makeshift storage units, etc. and are forced to move multiple times.


    As for the stress this creates for the parents- this sums it up: "“I suffered a lot to make sure that I had food for my kids,” Rios said."


    Thanks for researching this.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    As I was reading this story, I kept wondering about the immigration status of the many people interviewed.  As for the poor girl killed, it was ruled that she was not culpable in any way?  I see idiots walking across the street daily, often against the light, and many are staring into the hypnotic cell phone or iPad, and I wonder why more don't get run down.


    On that $10.75 mil judgement, who was sued, the trucking company, the city and/or county, and how was the penalty apportioned?  

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    THANK YOU for this excellent reporting, truly in the public interest.

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    Good reporting - we need more stories of the homeless families and children to take the focus off what many consider just adult  reprobates and addicts living on San Diego's streets.  No matter what else, the children NEVER choose this lifestyle and yet they are consigned to live it. 


    Thanks for bringing this much-needed perspective on homelessness and those who live in the worst conditions amid the wealth of our city.  .