The San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to expand the Stay Over Program at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School.
The amendment gives eligible homeless or housing-insecure students and their immediate family members throughout San Francisco Unified School District access to the emergency shelter program.
The pilot program, operated by Dolores Street Community Services, was originally intended to host up to 20 students and families, or about 50 people, from Buena Vista Horace Mann.
By March 1, only seven families had used the overnight shelter at the school since its launch in November, drawing controversy on whether the program was meeting its goals.
On Tuesday, the board’s meeting room drew a standing-room-only crowd as other issues on the agenda were discussed.
Yet by 10:14 p.m., about 40 people remained when the first public comment on the overnight shelter was addressed to the board.
Nick Chandler, the school’s social worker, called the last few months “revelatory.”
“What we’ve learned is that we need these tangible resources to say, ‘Hey, I hear you. You don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight. Sit down, put your stuff away. Here’s a bed, here’s a meal,’” he said. “‘We’re going to work on this.’”
He said that while the school started out with nearly 60 families who faced housing insecurity, they identified 26 families at imminent risk of homelessness “who did not have a plan for one to three months.” Through the program, 19 of the families were referred to the Bayview Access Point for alternative housing options.
“Because we’ve addressed it through this collaboration,” said Chandler. “We now have the ability to offer this to other students facing the same need in our district.”
Following Chandler, parent Johanna Lopez Miyaki asked the board to “put a pause” on making a decision on the expansion.
“It was a promise made to the community that this was to serve Buena Vista Horace Mann families,” she said. “I don’t see how, expanding it to all district schools, you can maintain that promise.”
She also said that there was a lack of “meaningful discussion” among the community to properly discuss their questions.
Another parent, David Serrano Sewell, acknowledged the work done by the school’s principal and the Board of Education for “what is a very crucial and important issue on how we deal with housing insecure families,” but reiterated that they were not “afforded the opportunity” to engage in a thorough discussion, as they had when the pilot program was first proposed last year.
Despite apprehension from these parents, Saúl Hidalgo, the director of housing and shelter programs at Dolores Street Community Services, said that they are ready to host other students and their families.
“This program has been working, as Nick mentioned,” he said. “And it has worked to such an extent at Buena Vista that we understand that we don’t have enough usage [at the shelter] to justify just remaining with Buena Vista. We have enough room for some of the other needs that exist across the city.”
He noted that there are at most 3,000 homeless children in San Francisco, and the majority attend schools within SFUSD. “I would love for our families, I would love for our children who experience this on a nightly basis, to have an opportunity to stay in a place that is safe, secure, warm and where they can get a warm meal,” said Hidalgo.
The president of the United Educators of San Francisco, Susan Solomon, further expanded on why the Stay Over Program should be considered a success.
“One of the reasons that I’ve heard about that fewer families are sleeping at the school is that this program also provides counseling that gets them into more secure housing situations, so they don’t need to sleep at Buena Vista Horace Mann,” she said.
The pilot, like other pilot programs at the school district, is a learning opportunity, said Solomon. “What we have learned is that more families need the services provided by what is going on in the program at Buena Vista Horace Mann.”
Speaking on behalf of the teachers’ union, she supported the expansion of the Stay Over Program to include other students and families in the school district.
After public comments, Commissioner Rachel Norton asked how the program will verify that families are, in fact, families of children enrolled in the school district.
Principal Claudia Delarios Morán said that social workers from other school sites will coordinate with Dolores Street Community Services to discuss and vet each case to ensure legitimacy and eligibility.
Norton also expressed concern that the expansion to the Stay Over Program has been “somewhat rushed because of the negative press” in an effort to prove viability.
She added that if the pilot program were to receive a superintendent’s recommendation to continue the program after the contract ends June 30, she wants to see additional data to evaluate its effectiveness.
Other commissioners shared their support of the program and its expansion to the principal.
“I appreciate your work in leading [this] effort and also using our buildings […] in a way that is in line with SFUSD values,” said Commissioner Alison Collins. “I appreciate the generosity that it takes to be thoughtful about a community that everybody talks about, but very few step up and actually take action.”
Commissioner Faauuga Moliga, a former social worker who has personally experienced homelessness, called the program a “slam dunk.”
Noting that this “trailblazing” program is likely the first in the country in which a public school is housing students and families, Commissioner Mark Sanchez said he is grateful that they have taken on this work. “When I hear from your staff and when I talk to my friends at your school, I just hear the love for this,” he said.
The last message of encouragement came from Commissioner Gabriela López.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that the families here and what they’re voicing are representative of BVHM as a whole,” she said. “I think there are a number of families who want to be here but can’t, so I appreciate the people who are here representing them.”
It’s now 10:42 p.m. and a unanimous decision has been made.
“Seven ayes,” said Esther Casco, executive assistant to the Board of Education, prompting applause from the remaining community members.