Buena Vista Horace Mann School could be hosting 20 homeless families in one of its gyms, come October, as part an ambitious — and some would say controversial — proposal to help the high number of homeless students at the school.
Outside the K-8 Mission District school on Wednesday morning, many parents — aware of the population of homeless students at the school — supported the novel plan that would give students and their families a place to sleep every night. Yet some questioned whether such a plan was advisable, given the school’s limited resources and physical condition.
“I’m very glad,” said Irma Nunez, a parent at the school, who has had experience working with homeless families and is a parent organizer with Jamestown Community Center.
Nunez said that students without permanent homes are constantly worried about where they will sleep from day to day, have no place to concentrate on homework, and have no consistent access to warm showers and are regularly sick.
“When they come to school, they don’t want anyone to know they’re facing problems,” she said.
As a result, Nunez said, their learning can suffer and, sometimes, they feel angry and have behavioral problems.
Johanna Lopez Miyaki, whose daughter attends the school and who is active in the parent’s organization, said she recognized the need to help the students whose families are without housing, and she is interested in finding solutions.
“But we’re not sure this should happen at a school — especially one like Buena Vista that’s in dire need of repairs and maintenance,” she said.
Miyaki said the school has suffered from lack of lighting, dysfunctional bathrooms with no soap, crumbling walls and exposed wires, and a sparse janitorial staff. She said there’s asbestos mitigation in parts of the grounds.
“We’re bringing on more to an already stressed school site,” she said. “I don’t think the proper planning is in place to take on such an ambition thing. And do it with dignity.”
Miyaki pointed to the fact that the gym has only one shower. “One shower for (that many) people,” she said, estimating the count of guests at the gym to be somewhere near 100 people. “I don’t even know how that’s possible.”
The school has 64 students who are without secure housing options, administrators say.
According to the plan, one of the school’s two gyms would be open to students and their families from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Cots and other equipment used by the families would be packed and put away by the start of school each day.
In addition to giving students more stability, the move would also give families a better platform to find more permanent housing, according to advocates of the proposal.
“Unfortunately, our housing crisis is so severe in San Francisco that teachers, students and administrators are spending an enormous amount of school time to address unsafe and insecure housing of students,” District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen said in a statement.
Noticing the increasing number of housing-insecure students at the school, administrators approached Ronen with the plan a few months ago. Her office then explored the plan’s feasibility, including its legality and the potential for funding, according to Carolyn Goossen, Ronen’s chief of staff.
Goossen estimated the project will cost between $700,000 and $900,000 a year, mostly for staffing. Ronen’s office hopes to get the funding into the mayor’s budget and the money would be taken out of the city’s General Fund, she said.
None of the program’s costs would be covered by the school, according to a draft of the proposal.
The money would fund three staffers for two different shifts as well as an unspecified number of custodians, according to the proposal. The money would also pay for beds, toiletry supplies, furniture, storage, clothes and first-aid.
For meals, “brown bag” breakfasts would be provided, and a kitchen would potentially be used for warm evening meals.
School and program staff would select the families eligible to participate.
Some parents, however, say the plan is unfair. For years, they said, the school’s administration has neglected their concerns about poor facility conditions and a lack of resources for students who struggle academically.
One mother who asked to remain anonymous because her daughter has a learning disability and she did not want to embarrass her, said the school had dragged its feet on finding help for students with learning disabilities. She said the school has a high IEP (or Individualized Education Program) population.
“Whenever there’s a need, the administration tells us there isn’t enough resources — or parents ourselves have to solve it,” she said, also pointing the lack of maintenance at the school.
Few examples of schools that double as shelters could be found around the country. Most often, schools will host the homeless population only in emergency situations.
In New York City, however, a private Quaker school hosts 14 mostly employed homeless residents by night and serves them organic meals, but other examples are few and far between.
Nonetheless, most parents found Buena Vista Horace Mann’s plan to be a compassionate move. “It’s great to find shelter and resources for these people,” said John Blair, who was dropping off his daughter at the school Wednesday morning.
Of course, he said, “there would have to be some controls and protections around it.”