The San Francisco School Board on Tuesday voted unanimously to expand a program allowing homeless students and their families at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 to sleep in the gym to other families across the district.
The Stay Over Program was launched late last year as a seven-month pilot targeting the estimated 60 out of some 600 students currently enrolled at the Mission District school who are thought to be homeless or housing insecure.
The program has drawn criticism over the small number of families it has served, with only seven sleeping at the school since its launch in November. Tuesday’s vote will allow it to accept referrals from other San Francisco Unified School District schools.
The program currently operates on a referral basis — families at BVHM work with the school’s social worker as well as the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing to gain access. The nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services staffs the school’s gym, where warm dinners and showers are offered.
The pilot program has funding to run through June 30. Some $700,000 was earmarked for one fiscal year for the program in the Mayor’s two-year budget proposal, and SF Weekly has previously reported that the program operates at a monthly cost of $37,000.
“We need this tangible resource to say, ‘Hey, we hear you — you don’t know where you will sleep tonight. Sit down, put your stuff away, here’s a bed, there’s a meal and we are going to work on this together,” said BHVM social worker Nick Chandler.
Chandler said that of the 60 BVHM families facing housing insecurity last year, 26 were identified as imminently homeless. He said that the school partnered with city officials to assess those families’ options, and helped them access permanent supportive housing, housing vouchers, single family shelters or other resources, including the school’s overnight shelter.
All but seven families were able to resolve their housing insecurity with the help of resources offered outside of the program.
The referral process will remain in place for families from other schools wishing to access to the program, according to BVHM principal Claudia Delarios Moran.
“Everybody that we know that is in need, we end up directing to Dolores Street representatives, who meet with them,” said Delarios Moran. “Nobody just shows up at the time the door is open, you have to make a reservation, which is done through the HSH Access Point… in order to get to that point you have to be vetted.”
Susan Solomon, president of United Educators of San Francisco, said that the union supports the program’s expansion. She attributed the program’s low number of overnight guests to the robust counseling services that the program has put in place.
“This pilot, as every pilot, has been a learning opportunity — what we have learned is that more families need the services provided,” said Solomon.
While the school’s staff hailed the program as a success, opinions on whether BVHM should be able to accept referrals from other schools varied among parents. Some said that they were unhappy with the original proposal to transform the gym into the shelter, and felt excluded from the decision making process over expanding the program to families beyond the BVHM community.
“Certain assurances and promises were made, and chief among them was that this would be for the Buena Vista Horace Mann families. Why? Because providing this service would uplift the entire school community,” said David Serrano Sewell, a parent at the school. “Now it’s shifted. Now something else is being proposed. The parents haven’t been afforded the opportunity to have that same discussion that we did last time.”
Another parent who said she has been at the school for 11 years and has volunteered an estimate 3,000 hours there said she was “shocked” when the decision to expand the program was proposed by the school’s administration, allegedly without parent input.
“I’m asking the board, before rushing to make a decision that affects the entire school community, to first invest in a true effort for community engagement be made,” the woman said.
The criticism over a lack of parent engagement prompted Commissioner Rachel Norton to request assurances that only families with students would be able to participate in the program. She added that she is concerned that “this has been a somewhat rushed expansion because of the negative press this program has received,” and has eroded some trust within the school community.
The other commissioners, however, praised the program. Commissioner Faauuga Moliga, who is a social worker, said that he has personal experiences with homelessness and called the program a “slam dunk.”
“To find an option for families that is safe and that is centered around students, I want to applaud that,” said Commissioner Alison Collins, addressing Delarios Moran.”I appreciate your work…in using our building in a way that is in line with SFUSD valued and also expands access to supporting our communities.”
Once the pilot expires, the school board would have to vote to recommend a continuance of the program. Norton requested that more data be presented at that time about the impact and effectiveness of the program.