Buena Vista Horace Mann yard
At Buena Vista Horace Mann. Photo by Walter Mackns

In his 10 years and change at Mission High School, a staff member has helped students squatting in cars or garages, called up shelters to ask about vacancies and taken time on some weekends to help students move into shelters.

But this year, for the first time, he helped a family that was sleeping on the street.

To him, it signals an increase in homeless students, and he’s not alone in witnessing this. Counselors, parents and nonprofits are bracing for a jump when the new census of homeless students comes out in October.

“We are seeing more and more people becoming unhoused, and we’re worried, because these are families with children,” said Mario Paz, executive director of Good Samaritan Family Resource Center.

The most recent data, from October, 2021, shows that 4.2 percent of students are homeless. But many advocates expect the count this year to be higher when the new data comes out in a month.

The expected increase, said Paz, is not surprising. He blames it on the pandemic and lost jobs. “Our community is pretty resilient, but it’s starting to wear,” Paz said.  

Even before the pandemic, homelessness in the San Francisco Unified School District was rising. In the 2017-18 school year, 1,915 students were recorded as homeless. That number increased to 2,342 last year.

At the same time, the number of enrolled students overall has fallen by roughly 4,700. This means that, while five years ago, one in every 31 students was homeless, that number is now one in every 24. At some schools, the ratio is much higher. At Hillcrest Elementary School in the Excelsior, one in three students is classified as homeless.

“There were very few families that were living in a dwelling on their own as one family pre-covid,” said Ann Hughes, a teacher at Hillcrest. Before the pandemic, Hillcrest would run a clothing, food and essential-needs pantry exclusively for families in their school.

Last year, one in every 24 students was homeless.

% homeless at each school

35

30

Student homelessness

rose from 2.6% in 2014

to 4.2% last year.

Hillcrest Elementary

25

20

15

Mission High

SFUSD average

10

Buena Vista

5

0

’14–15

’15–16

’16–17

’17–18

’21–22

’18–19

’19–20

’20–21

School year

Last year, one in every 24

students was homeless.

School year

’14–15

Student homelessness

rose from 2.6% in 2014

to 4.2% last year.

’15–16

’16–17

SFUSD average

’17–18

Mission High

’18–19

Hillcrest

Elementary

’19–20

Buena Vista

’20–21

’21–22

30

20

25

35

10

15

0

5

% homeless at each school

Chart by Will Jarrett. Data from the California Department of Education.

Across the city, the demand for shelter is high, but there’s not enough space for everyone. The Buena Vista Horace Mann School overnight shelter, which is designed for families enrolled in non-charter SFUSD schools, has been at capacity since April. Covid restrictions have cut its capacity by half, to 30 beds instead of 60.

Since its opening, the shelter has almost always had space available for families and was even at risk of being shut down for lack of use. Now, the shelter is seen as essential to serving homeless families across SFUSD.

“It’s been at capacity, primarily because of the decrease in space that we have and how many families we can take in,” said Laura Valdez, executive director of Dolores Street Community Services. Despite the reduced number of beds, Valdez also believes that the number of homeless families has increased.

A staff member at the Buena Vista Horace Mann shelter, who asked not to be identified, said the shelter has been getting an average of six families per day calling about space.

“And it’s so sad, because if we are full, it also means that the other shelters are at capacity,” the Buena Vista Horace Mann staff member said. “I have a good relationship with Providence [Foundation], and we’re calling each other, and every time I call, they’re saying ‘no, I don’t have space.’”

Nick Chandler, a social worker for Buena Vista Horace Mann, agreed.

“It’s tight. There’s not a lot of vacancies in those shelters and there’s a lot of urgency. We see that it continues to come up, when we talk to our workers and family liaisons, that housing stress is a major issue,” Chandler said.

At present, the city has three different access points designated for homeless families. These access points are supposed to help homeless families connect with services to help mitigate homelessness and ultimately connect families to stable housing. According to Mary Kate Bacalao, director of external affairs and policy at Compass Family Services, the city has been working hard to buy more buildings to use as affordable housing for families.

“The city is working really hard on those permanent housing options, but again, we’re short on shelter, and a lot of those housing options aren’t ready yet,” Bacalao said. “We need more immediate shelters, so families aren’t in dire situations.”

Compass Family Services offers numerous resources for families experiencing homelessness; one is a family shelter with 21 individual rooms. For months, its family shelter has consistently had a waitlist of more than 60 families.

“I’m hearing that there are a lot more homeless families and, specifically, families who are needing shelter,” Bacalao said. “And it’s a big point of stress at our central city access point and there’s just limits to what we can provide.”

Patricia Barraza, who serves on the education committee for the Latino Task Force, recently helped a homeless family find a hotel to stay in. Finding a shelter, let alone permanent housing, has been a different story.

“We all try our best, and even with the case manager, she ran to three different access points, but at the end of the day, it’s the same system. They’re waiting for the same doors to open,” Barraza said.

Paz and others point to housing affordability and low streams of income as reasons for the rise in the number of homeless families. Paz also pointed out that Latinx parents, in particular, remain under considerable financial pressure.

“Certain sectors of the economy are recovering slowly, meaning they aren’t hiring people and not providing opportunities in our community,” Paz said.

His solution: “We’re going to need the city to support our families through this, or else we’re going to see more homeless families.”

Instead, he pointed out, the resources the city offered earlier in the pandemic have diminished, with rent relief programs ending and covid community hubs getting less funding. 

In addition to exacerbating rates of homelessness, the pandemic has disconnected some teachers from the families they were serving.

“Before covid, I felt like I always had my finger on the pulse of what is going on with our families. Post-covid, I think it’s been a little bit harder to get that data and connect with families,” said Hughes. The national teacher shortage also doesn’t help.

“It’s hard, because there’s been such a disruption for Hillcrest. There’s so many of us still learning our jobs,” Hughes said.

Baraza would like to see more help before a family gets evicted. “If you don’t have a lease in place, can we support you in getting that lease in place? Some of these folks don’t know that they can do that,” Barraza said.

As for addressing the need for more shelter, Valdez thinks that more schools should take on Buena Vista Horace Mann’s shelter model.

“We need way more family shelters, and it’s a model that is very cost-effective because it’s in a facility at the school district,” Valdez said. “It’s based in the community, and it’s an entity that families see as a sanctuary.”

The map below shows the proportion of homeless students in schools across San Francisco. Use the buttons to take a look at the last five years of data. You can search for 2021–22 information on individual schools in the table below.

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Intern reporter. Carolyn grew up in Los Angeles. She previously served as a desk editor for her college newspaper The Stanford Daily. When she's not reporting, you can find her going on an unnecessarily long walk.

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  1. A key missing piece here is that SFUSD enrollment is decreasing *because* of housing instability for low income families. When you look at the demographics of students leaving SFUSD a huge proportion are the same students & families who are highlighted in this story as facing housing crises. White & more affluent families are increasing in some neighborhoods, but since efforts at integration in the 70s 1/2 of white families have always had limited investment in public schools. (There’s a slight rise in the percent of white family enrollment during the integration order & a decline again as schools resegregate once it’s lifted. Similarly, white families tend to cluster in segregated elementary schools and when it’s time for middle schools, which are larger & more integrated many leave the district, sometimes coming back for high school if they get their school of choice). The city’s gentrification is pushing out the families who use public schools & that also destabilizes school enrollments & funding & creates resource cuts for students & families who rely on public schools.

    1. In addition, California is one of the only remaining states to fund schools based on daily attendance, which can be very difficult for families facing housing crises.

      (See this article: https://edsource.org/2022/attendance-or-enrollment-how-should-california-schools-be-funded/669395)

      Unless it has changed very recently, California really ought to start funding schools by enrollment, so all schools have stable sources of funds. Administrators and staff can then increase their focus and attention on these students and their families.

      Supporting these students and their families needs to be a district and state priority — I can only imagine how their learning was impacted during the pandemic, considering the general, gaping holes in achievement.

    2. It’s worth mentioning how rabid SFUSD dysfunction may have something to do with families taking their kids to schools other than SFUSD’s.