A New Kind of Sleepover

Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 may convert its gym to an overnight shelter for students and their families who don’t have safe or stable housing.

As the mayor’s race heats up, each candidate has come up with their own solutions for helping people living on the street find housing. Among them are navigation centers, city-owned SROs, and improved tenant protections — but behind each proposal is a rallying cry for more money.

Outside of the politics of City Hall, however, one public school has quietly proposed its own, inexpensive solution: opening up its gym for 12 hours every night so that students and their families have a safe place to sleep.

Buena Vista Horace Mann is a K-8 school in the Mission District which has (by school administrators’ count) at least 64 families out of 600 who struggle to find a place to sleep each night. So desperate is the situation that many kids in school are often tired and hungry, unable to focus, and have frequent absences. Teachers and staff have taken on the added burden of trying to connect families to resources, but at the end of the day, many of the kids don’t have a home to go to.

“The stories we hear from our families are heartbreaking,” principal Richard Zapien says. “There are times when a parent has asked me,Is there a corner somewhere at the school where we can sleep tonight?’ ”

Zapien and vice principal Claudia Delarios Moran approached Sup. Hillary Ronen about the idea of converting the school’s gym into a temporary shelter for families — something they’re calling the Stay Over Program — when she toured the school recently, looking for a place to enroll her daughter. Ronen hopped on the idea, deploying her staff to figure out if such an idea was legal. Turns out, it is.

The proposed program is still in the early stages, but some firm details have been hammered out. Buena Vista Horace Mann would open one of its two gyms with cots and bedding, offering space for up to 20 school families to sleep from 7 p.m. to 7 a m. every night. (All supplies would be put away before the school day starts.)

An “experienced nonprofit” (yet to be determined) would monitor the program and help families find secure housing.

“I am so heartened that our school community is stepping up and proposing solutions to support our most vulnerable, housing insecure families,” Ronen says. “We all need to take a page out of the book of Buena Vista Horace Mann, and see it as our responsibility to step up and offer solutions — especially when our federal government is failing us.”

Buena Vista Horace Mann is just one of many schools in San Francisco that enrolls students who may experience housing insecurity. The San Francisco School District estimates that during the 2015-16 school year more than 2,000 students — or one in 25 — didn’t have a safe or stable place to return home to after school.

I’m not sure our housing crisis has ever been so bad,” Ronen says. “We’re at this next level of a breaking point for San Francisco families who are really not able to make it. “

The Stay Over Program still has some kinks to work out — biggest among them is securing a small amount of funding — but if all goes according to plan, it could launch as soon as October. As for whether this is a model that could be expanded citywide, Ronen says it’s something that the school has to initiate — highlighting that a one-size-fits-all approach could be too sweeping.

“The school approached me, and I do think it has to be done in that way,” she says. “Each school community is different. I will jump at any opportunity to help any school in my district who would want to do something like this. But it really does have to be something that has to come from the school.”

But for one parent at Buena Vista Horace Mann, Lydia, the opportunity could be a lifesaver. She lives with her three children in one room in a shared house, with neighbors who want her out.

“I am afraid to come home and face my roommates and downstairs neighbor. I pick up my children from school and go to the park or a friend’s house until after 10 p.m.,” she says. “When I am at home, I am constantly afraid. … If I could, I would leave, but I have nowhere else to go.”

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