School homeless shelter model gives families a safety net

Solutions

When Buena Vista Horace Mann (BVHM) K-8 school in San Francisco opened its gym to be a temporary shelter for students and their families, it was the first such program in the country. 

Four years later, school districts across the U.S. and Canada are taking notice of the program — especially as a lack of affordable housing and a spike in the number of evictions are front of mind for thousands of Americans. 

Proponents of BVHM’s temporary shelter say it connects with hundreds of people that city services struggle to reach — leading to fewer homeless students and better classroom behavior. 

“Anybody who is staying there has run out of options,” said Nick Chandler, community school coordinator. “That so many people are utilizing it shows you how few options there are.”

intercepting homelessness in schools

BVHM is used to breaking new ground. It was the city’s first Spanish-immersion public school — and principal Claudia DeLarios Morán said the shared culture between bilingual staff and students is a huge reason for the success of the shelter.

“You’re entrusting your children to this place,” DeLarios Morán said. “It makes sense that families feel comfortable here, especially if … we mean it when we say, ‘This is a safe place. We’re here to support you.’”

The shelter is run by Dolores Street Community Services, a nonprofit helping low-income residents and immigrants. It’s open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every weekday — ensuring privacy for the families before and after classes — while remaining open 24 hours on the weekend. As the school year ends, it’ll be open 24 hours all summer.

Families eat a hot meal together, and students have time to do homework. Staff set up partitions and cots for up to 60 people at a time. Any student from the district is eligible to stay for as long as they need it. Most families stay for about two to six weeks. 

Maribel Chávez, a first-grade teacher at BVHM, told The Hechinger Report that she saw students flourish after getting consistent meals and sleep in the shelter. 

To date, more than 500 people associated with the San Francisco Unified School District have used the shelter, according to BHVM officials. Most had not previously been connected to city homeless services, according to a city report from 2020. The school’s shelter was 21% cheaper per bed than other similar shelters.

“Why those folks hadn’t been identified (as needing services) before is they hadn’t had that point of contact that felt like there was a relationship and trust and respect,” Chandler said. “We have families for nine years, and that’s enough time to really partner with families on this journey.”

BUILding ON RELATIONSHIPS

When the shelter opened in 2018, the neighborhood surrounding BVHA was rapidly gentrifying. Longtime residents were pushed out of their homes, and newcomers to the U.S. had few affordable options. 

There are more than 1.3 million public school students without permanent housing nationwide, according to the most recent data released from the National Center for Education Statistics. Many are known as “housing insecure,” meaning they bounce between family members and friends, sleep in the family car or sometimes stay in shelters — and they bring the related stress and anxiety into the classroom. 

“We were seeing students who were expressing themselves and expressing their needs in ways that were unsafe, they were disruptive,” DeLarios Morán said. “When we connected with their families, we were hearing that what was actually behind this behavior was a lot of anxiety and insecurity as a result of housing issues.”

Principal Claudia DeLarios Morán said the shared culture between bilingual staff and students at Buena Vista Horace Mann is a huge reason for the success of the shelter. Courtesy of  Buena Vista Horace Mann.

Homeless kids are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, as well as disruptions in their schooling, often permanently setting their learning behind, according to the Learning Policy Institute. 

Compounding the issue, staff realized Latinos weren’t accessing the housing programs that were available — and that schools are uniquely poised to reach families on the brink of homelessness.

“The missing link was the direct pipeline from the schools to the (larger housing) system,” DeLarios Morán said. “Because we had created this incredible safety net … we were able to catch most people before they needed to sleep in the gym.” 

Listening to families

Early on, BVHM was criticized for how few people were using it. Just a year into the pilot, the San Francisco Chronicle called it an “expensive failure” costing taxpayers $700 a night.

That’s because the city of San Francisco paid for the operating expenses, while the school donated the space and paid the utilities. Still, the program was not cost-effective until it opened to the entire district. At that point, monthly occupancy jumped to an average of 65 percent. BVHM’s shelter has been a fully-funded city budget item for the past three years, at a price tag of roughly $1 million.

And while the “brick and mortar” aspect of the shelter gets a lot of public attention, the program would not be as successful without partnerships between the city, school district, school staff and affected families.

“Telling everybody that they need to put a shelter in their school is not the spirit of this,” Chandler said. “The spirit is listening to the families that are in your building, raising up those concerns. … Why we were able to go to all those different stakeholders is because it came from our students.”

Still, many families wait months if not longer to find long-term, permanent housing. Two-thirds of families went on to stay in other temporary housing, such as private hotel rooms. 

That won’t change until the city addresses the dissolution of housing for renters, and low- to middle-income people and immigrants, DeLarios Morán said. 

“There are enough apartments available to house everybody who needs it,” she said. “It really is a question of affordability and access.”

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