Migrant girl in Tijuana
A girl hugs a relative outside a migrant camp near the El Chaparral border crossing in Tijuana. REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan

Last week students from Mater Dei Catholic High School and Juan Diego Academy gathered in the Kassebaum Theater to participate in the campus’s fifth annual “Night For the Homeless.” Participants began by learning more about this year’s theme of refugees from a panel of speakers and ending the night by packing hygiene bags for local charities.

Leaving the event left one thought on my mind: now more than ever, especially with growing uncertainty in Ukraine, the issue of displaced and homeless people in San Diego should be brought to the forefront by youth and city leaders alike.

San Diego has always been an urban epicenter for those without a home. After postponement in January, San Diego began its first unsheltered survey in two years on Feb. 24. From Thursday’s initial count, almost 2,000 homeless individuals have already been reported, quickly approaching the 7,619 total in 2020. 

The prospective increase in the homeless population has obvious explanations: the pandemic, rising economic inequality, abuse, and mental illness continually push this statistic to troubling numbers. With growing enforcement against homeless encampments and the recent uncharacteristic weather, our county’s unsheltered continue to face issues hidden in plain sight.

However, unlike many other urban centers, the surveyed unsheltered aren’t the only ones without a place to call home in this county.

The immigration and refugee crisis is nothing new to San Diego county. In our county alone, 10,000 pending immigration cases are yet to be resolved and a daily average of 755 non-citizens remain in the Otay Mesa Detention Center, awaiting trial or executive decision. Across the border, thousands of asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and all across Latin America await entrance at the San Diego-Tijuana border.

The growing population of unsheltered, both already living here and seeking refuge, is well-beyond many people’s initial perceptions. There are many reasons why we see such a massive population of refugees from other countries. 

Vino Pajanor, CEO of Catholic Charities and a panelist, explained to students some of the greatest issues that have caused such a massive surge in asylum seekers. “Political prosecution … gangs harassing civilians, economic uncertainty, the trifecta effect along with COVID-19 is forcing people to migrate,” he said.

Pajanor has worked with thousands of resettlement and undocumented cases since becoming CEO of Catholic Charities. Even after refugees are granted asylum, he described the harsh treatment of immigrants as a contributor to their continued struggle in this country.

“Forget the ‘undocumented,’ think the person, the individual,'” he said. Oftentimes, he said, asylees will be presented with great hardship in the resettlement process as they are left with little government support or sense of community. 

Carmen Chavez, an attorney at Casa Cornelia Law Center and fellow panelist, offered a legal perspective to San Diego’s refugee crisis. “How many people knew there was a detention center right in the middle of Otay Mesa?” she asked the students.

To her surprise, only a handful of her audience was aware that such tragic, inhumane mistreatment was happening right next to them. She went on to call for further legal reform, especially amidst the immigration case backlog caused by the pandemic. Stagnant policies, a lack of understanding of immigration law, and a lack of support from governments contribute to the suppression of asylum seekers. 

It is clear that San Diego has a unique challenge in mitigating homelessness that sets it apart from many other U.S. cities. Not only does our county have a large population of unsheltered citizens, but also an equally sizable population of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants in detention centers or in the grueling process of resettlement.

With the prospective rise in Ukrainian asylum seekers, San Diego officials and citizens must come to grips with the often forgotten nuances of homelessness to help solve an issue that will only grow more extensive as time passes. 

These issues will get worse if people do not act. Parker Newburn, a panelist and program director at Home for Refugees USA, suggests many ways we can help the homeless and those looking to resettle in Chula Vista:

“Advocacy, as well as getting involved in local resettlement efforts… or giving and donating to efforts,” he urged. “We even have organizations that help with making Walmart wish lists.”

I encourage everyone in Chula Vista to reach out to local organizations and resources to see how you and your community can help.

Mark Allen Cu is a student at Mater Dei Catholic High School in Chula Vista.