The family homeless shelter within Buena Vista Horace Mann school has been extended, and will continue to run through at least November, allowing homeless or housing-insecure students and their families from throughout the San Francisco Unified School District to use the emergency shelter program.

Dolores Street Community Services, the non-profit that operates the pilot program, has been awarded the same contract amount as it was last year by the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, which was $518,182 for October 15, 2018, to June 30, 2019.

The school-based shelter and service provider, hailed as a first-of-its-kind program, opened its doors in November of last year. After far fewer Buena Vista Horace Mann families than anticipated used the shelter portion of the program, the school board voted to open it up to students and families from throughout the school district.

Nick Chandler, Buena Vista Horace Mann’s social worker, describes the program as two components: “one is the brick-and-mortar shelter and the other is the collaboration of the city.”

The former was the element that garnered all the headlines and attention. But the latter, he says, is the rapidly growing asset. Those low shelter numbers spurred the opening of its services to a broader swath of people — and a re-emphasis that there’s more here than that.

“Instead of having to house the families in the shelter, we can connect them to resources to prevent the need,” said Chandler. “Once we saw the trend and saw the numbers, it was clear we had the capacity to support other schools with the brick-and-mortar piece.”

The jarringly low number of families who initially opted to stay the night here — only seven between November 2018 and March 2019 — earned the program the derisive label of a “costly failure” in the newspaper of record. Staff, however, took this as the quintessential teachable moment.

“Now that we have a little bit of distance from the sting of it, ultimately, we were able to look at what was underneath the criticism and the needs that parents communicated,” said BVHM principal Claudia Delarios Morán.

Chandler noted the feedback from families was especially helpful and welcome.

“It really did help us think through how we wanted to set this up,” he said. “This is a pilot. This hasn’t been done before. There’s not a model we can look at, so having that community thought into it, while emotionally charged and challenging, was productive.”

The biggest lesson was that, while the provision of housing is crucial, said Delarios Morán, it is only a piece of the puzzle.

“We were really so focused on getting a shelter up and running. And then the shelter just turned into a last resort or a first stop on this journey to stability,” she said. “The real ‘aha’ is just how multifaceted everyone’s stories are and how multifaceted our approach needs to be to meet their needs.”

As a result of the collaborative case management that was developed with the agencies and organizations involved, families have been assigned rental subsidies or received support in finding permanent supportive housing.

Since the district-wide expansion, Chandler has trained social workers at other school sites, so all schools are now officially aware of the BVHM program through their social workers. The principal is now working toward informing all school administrators.

“One of the biggest things I’m really happy about is how invisible the shelter is to the functioning of the school day. It’s not something that is visible to outsiders,” said Chandler.

While students and faculty haven’t seen an impact on the school itself by hosting the shelter on campus, they have observed positive differences among students who have received support from the program.

“I’m hearing that from other social workers as well [with remarks] like, ‘I’m noticing a change in this student and thanks for putting this together; this really helped that kid stabilize,’” said Chandler.

For Delarios Morán, a particular student comes to mind: one who is calmer, more settled in, grounded and able to take in more academic content. “He knows where his next meal is going to come from,” she said. “He knows his sibling is going to be fine, his parents are going be okay.”

“And that was our hypothesis, right?” she added. “But then to actually see our children experience this transformation in front of our eyes, it’s been incredibly heartwarming.”