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Mission District school plans to open gym to homeless students, families overnight

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A woman walks past Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 School. Richard Zapien, the school’s principal, announced a plan for the Mission District school to establish a homeless center for students and their families on Wednesday, April 11, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A Mission District school hoping to address the severe housing crisis affecting dozens of its students is floating plans to convert its gymnasium into an overnight family shelter.

“There is now a level of desperation among our student body that is unprecedented,” said Claudia Delarios Moran, vice principal at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 School at 3351 23rd St. While the school offers academic interventions and emotional support services to students who are struggling, she said that data does not show improvements among the students whose challenges are compounded by homelessness.

“They are not getting better,” said Moran. “Our job as a school is to remove all the barriers to learning for a child.”

The mounting housing and affordability crisis has left Horace Mann teachers and administrators searching for new ways to provide support to an estimated 64 homeless and marginally housed students enrolled there.

On Tuesday, the school’s leaders announced that they are working with Supervisor Hillary Ronen to provide shelter to 20 Horace Mann students and their immediate families after school hours. The preliminary plans for the “Stay Over Program” include transforming one of the school’s two gyms into a shelter from 7 p.m to 7 a.m. by October.

Principal Richard Zapien emphasized that the temporary shelter service will only be extended to students who are currently enrolled at Horace Mann, as well as their families.

The plan is to enlist a third party contractor through the The City’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, such as a nonprofit experienced in working with homeless families, to manage the facility and provide case management and access to city resources, with the goal of moving the families into more stable and safe housing.

“We have families that come to us and say, ‘I have until the end of the month,’ or ‘I have an unsafe living situation,” said Zapien. “What we want to be able to do is get that family into a better situation.”

The San Francisco Unified School District has reported that more than 2,000 of its students — approximately one student per classroom — lives doubled-up with friends or family, in cars, or in other unstable situations, including on the streets.

Ronen estimates that constructing and operating a shelter at Horace Mann will cost between $700,000 and $900,000 annually. She is hoping to secure the funds before The City’s budget is finalized in June but is also looking for private investment.

“Teachers and administrators are spending so much of their time dealing with emergency housing needs of their students instead of their core function of teaching,” said Ronen. “This is a way we can keep the burden off the school.”

According to Zapien, the plan has been met with support by all of the school’s more than 40 teachers, but several parents who were clued in to the plan at a parent advisory meeting on Monday remained on the fence.

“It was very clear that there [are] concerns among families that were there,” said Efrain Barrera, School Site Council president at Horace Mann. Barrera said he strongly supports the proposal, which he called “revolutionary.”

Zapien acknowledged that upgrades are needed at the aging facility, including improvements to the school’s lighting system. He said parents expressed concerns about security and how the shelter would impact day-to-day school operations.

“We want our parents to have questions — we also have questions,” said Zapien, adding that school, district and city leaders are currently working to collect parent input and find solutions.

Tara Kini, the mother of two Horace Mann students, is among a large group of parents who have already expressed support for the proposal.

“The school facility will need extra support, but I think that is a challenge that the district, The City, parents and the school community can problem solve,” said Kini. “Real estate is a huge resource in the City, and [the gym] sits empty from 7 p.m to 7 a.m. This seems like a creative way to support our families who literally have nowhere else to sleep.”

Richard Zapien, principal at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 School, discusses a plan for the Mission District school to establish a homeless center for students and their families. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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