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Border & Immigration

Migrants and asylum seekers living in San Diego's homeless encampments

Her family fled an authoritarian government in Venezuela, extortionists in Colombia and drug cartels in Mexico. Now, Albany Hernandez is homeless in San Diego.

Hernandez, her husband and their three children have been living in a homeless encampment off the side of a highway near downtown for two months.

“This isn’t a good place to live,” she said in Spanish. “We don’t have bathrooms, we don’t have water, we don’t have electricity.”


The Hernandez family is one of more than a dozen migrant families currently living in the encampment. They sleep in tents on a dirt field. They walk to nearby libraries to charge their phones and get a brief respite from the summer heat.

Hernandez also calls 211—a regional hotline for people who need help with food, housing, or other basic needs—on a regular basis to try to secure shelter for her children.

“I call them so much that they probably know my name by now,” she joked.

These families are part of a growing number of homeless migrants and asylum seekers in San Diego. Immigration advocates warned this would happen when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began releasing people into the streets last year and the county's temporary migrant transit center closed due to lack of funding.

Why migrants are homeless


CBP has released more than 100,000 migrants into San Diego in the past year. The vast majority—more than 95% of them—only stay in town for a few days before connecting with relatives or friends in other parts of the country, according to data from the County of San Diego.

But some of those with nowhere else to go are becoming homeless.

“We’ve seen people from all over,” said Hanan Scrapper, regional director for PATH San Diego. “Guatemala, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Somalia. It’s a crisis right now and we’re trying to manage their basic human needs at the moment.”

PATH is an organization that seeks to end homelessness by providing supportive services and building affordable housing throughout the region.

Last September, PATH started tracking individuals who identify as migrants who are seeking shelter at the city’s Homelessness Response Center, a centralized hub where homeless San Diegans can get connected to various services.

Since then, staff have counted more than 1,100 migrants seeking shelter. Some of those numbers may include duplicates or one individual who made multiple visits, a PATH spokesperson said.

Albany Hernandez
Matthew Bowler
Albany Hernandez tries to cool off under the shade on a sunny July day. The asylum seeker from Venezuela is one of dozens of migrants living in a homeless encampment. She is on a waitlist for housing but feels unsafe sleeping outside. July 3, 2024.

Immigrant rights advocates have been critical of the city and county’s lack of long-term plan to help migrants released onto the streets by CBP. One of the main criticisms is that unless the city and county offer more help, migrants released onto the streets will fall through the cracks and end up homeless.

Mayor Todd Gloria did not respond to questions for this story.

County Supervisor Nora Vargas issued a statement that recognized challenges faced by homeless migrants and underscored current efforts to help. Vargas specifically referenced nearly $20 million in federal funding to establish a “Migrant Transition Day Center.”

“This center is designed to provide dignified and humane assistance, including essential resources such as food, clothing, and crucial information to safely guide asylum-seekers to their intended destinations,” Vargas said in a statement.

That center is meant to help the majority of migrants who don’t plan to stay in San Diego. It is unclear how the center will help homeless migrants who remain in the region.

Already overburdened system

Homeless migrants in San Diego find themselves in an already overburdened system, according to advocates.

San Diego is already one of the most unaffordable cities in the world, according to a study from Chapman University.

Every month for the last two years, more people in San Diego have become homeless than those who have transitioned out of homelessness, according to monthly surveys from the Regional Taskforce on Homelessness.

High housing costs are a contributing factor, according to Scrapper, who said struggling families pay up to 70% of their income just on housing. Seniors on fixed incomes and people working minimum wage jobs are in particularly vulnerable situations, she added.

“We have hundreds of people who show up at the homelessness response center daily seeking shelter and we are often turning most of them away,” Scrapper said.

Back at the encampment, families struggle to make the best out of a horrible situation. Hernandez is not letting homelessness get in the way of her American Dream.

She’s already enrolled her kids in school, where they are learning English. They also get a Trolley pass and free meals. While they’re at work, Hernandez works in a textile factory while her husband works in construction.

“We don’t want a handout,” she said. “We just need a little help.”