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When a 15-year-old was killed by a semi-truck in Otay Mesa in 2014, news reports focused on the fact that the teen was on her phone. No one asked why she was walking in an industrial area where few pedestrians ever go. The answer: She was walking home from school. Home was a junkyard.
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.
Those reports missed a tragic part of the story – the reason two teenagers were walking in an industrial area where few pedestrians ever go.
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.
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.
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.
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.