A radical program established at a K-8 public school in the Mission District is receiving backlash mere months after it was opened. But the principal of the school, Claudia DeLarios Morán, says that far from being a failure, it’s a success.
Last spring, District 9 Supervisor Ronen and then-Vice Principal DeLarios Morán teamed up to establish the first-ever overnight shelter to be built inside a local public school. The need was apparent; by the school’s count, there were approximately 64 families whose kids attended the school who were homeless or only tentatively housed. The strain on the students and staff was difficult to ignore.
“The stories we hear from our families are heartbreaking,” former-Principal Richard Zapien said last year. “There are times when a parent has asked me, ‘Is there a corner somewhere at the school where we can sleep tonight?’ ”
In response, the school’s Stay Over Program had a soft launch in November, with city funds and support from the nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services. It began actively taking in families in January, who could stop in after school was out for the day, take a shower, have a safe space to sleep, and connect with caseworkers who could assist them in finding secure housing.
But a damning article that came out in the Chronicle Friday called it “a failure,” stating that only five families had used the space, which is fully-staffed at a weekly cost of $40,000. In fact, it’s been seven, at a monthly cost of $37,000.
DeLarios Morán, who’s kept a watchful eye on the Stay Over Program, has a very different take. Yes, the program was envisioned when 64 families were housing insecure, with 15 of those facing or currently experiencing homelessness. But while the total number of families in need of support dropped to 23 by the time the Stay Over Program finally opened, the same number of families as before — 15 — were in desperate need of immediate shelter or services.
Through connections made through the Stay Over Program, 16 of those 23 total families were subsequently enrolled in city services, which helped them access eviction defense, or secure housing.
So yes, only seven families have actually used the shelter, but the message that it’s a failure “couldn’t be farther from the truth,” DeLarios Morán tells SF Weekly. “It’s so much of a success that we’ve diverted people away from the program. We’re trying to do everything we can to keep people out of the gym.”
In other words, to simply view the Stay Over Program as a shelter is short-sighted. Instead, the funding and support that’s been given to the school’s caseworkers and staff through the relationship with the Department of Homeless and Supportive Housing has nearly eliminated the need for shelter altogether.
For now. The number of families in need will always be changing, and homelessness takes many forms. Some Mission families live in their car, others crash with friends for a few weeks, many more manage to find short term housing. If you’re low-income and live in a massively gentrifying neighborhood, housing insecurity can be constant.
“They might not need the shelter tonight, but it might be part of their plan two weeks from now,” DeLarios Morán says. “There’s a level of safety that our families can have now because they know that if they need to use the space tonight it’s there and it’s an option. It’s a load off their minds that there’s a safe and warm environment for them and their children when they need it.”
And, once they show up, they receive support and services from trained professionals who have the connections to get them help — a massive change from before.
“It’s really affirming them to help them stay where they are, or relocate to a long or short term situation that’s stable,” DeLarios Morán says. “None of those things were happening before. We’d try but there was no one on the end of the line. You’d put people on a waiting list and that’s all you could do. This is a level of coherence we’ve never really had before.”
Ronen agrees — while the gym may not be jam-packed with families each night, another lesson has been learned. “Given all of this new information and the new situation, it’s clear the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing needs to do a much better job of training and forming relationships with school social workers,” she says. “It was only because of this process we got those 16 families in, and that should have started a year ago.”
And now that the gym has the supplies and staff needed to host families — including brand new showers, donated with pro bono work — there’s the possibility of opening it up to people from other schools across San Francisco. That’s exactly what DeLarios Morán wants to do.
“As long as we can maintain the level of service we’re providing now, why not open it up?” she says. “I have complete faith in Dolores Community Services. The structure is in place, and it’s working, and there’s nothing we’re sacrificing by opening it up to more people.”
In order to include other schools in Buena Vista Horace Mann’s Stay Over Program, DeLarios Morán will have to get support from the school board, which may be an uphill battle considering both the mayor and the director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing gave recent comments to the Chronicle implying it’s a failure. What may need to happen is a reframing of the program altogether: Keeping people out of the gym’s shelter should be the goal, but the space should still exist as an option. And more than anything, solid resources need to be available to help families avoid having to show up there at night.
“If you are trying to prevent suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge and you create a safety net underneath it, that is a last resort,” DeLarios Morán says. “You hope no one ever has to land in the safety net. But in addition to the net you’ve got social workers, counselors, patrolling the bridge. You don’t measure the efficacy of the safety net by how many people are landing in the net. It’s a whole system that’s been put in place. Don’t blame the last resort for not being used more.”
Ronen thinks that cost should be reviewed in assessing the success of the Stay Overnight Program. “The program for seven families doesn’t make any financial sense, we might as well buy a condo for that amount of money,” she says. “We’re absolutely not going to continue the program if that’s the amount of people it will serve.”
But, she also says she supports the effort to open it up to other schools — if Buena Vista Horace Mann wants to explore that. “I’m not going to advocate for what the school doesn’t want itself,” she says. “It’s never been something I’ve asked the school to do; the school has asked the city to do this. But the faculty and the staff want to open it up to other schools. They’re not ready to give up on this model. They feel like it’s been a net positive even though the census has been so low.”
And at the end of the day, as more than 8,000 people experience homelessness across San Francisco, new solutions have to be tried — even if they don’t function exactly as planned.
“I never want the message to be ‘don’t try new things because you’re scared of failure’, ” Ronen says. “When you try new innovative approaches they might work, or they might not. But we have to try new things.”