[News] A school created a homeless shelter in the gym and it paid off in the classroom
news at freedomarchives.org
Sat Mar 19 11:11:33 EDT 2022
A school created a homeless shelter in the gym and it paid off in the
by Gail Cornwall <https://hechingerreport.org/author/gail-cornwall/> March
SAN FRANCISCO — On a Friday evening in the fall of 2019, Maria Flores stood
waiting with her “crazy heavy” duffel bag and her teenage son outside the
office of a man whose home she cleans. A friend of hers had told him that
Flores had been evicted from the apartment she had lived in for 16 years.
There, the single mom had paid $700 a month in rent ever since she’d moved
in eight-months pregnant. Now, one night at a motel cost as much as $250.
“Every single day I was looking for a place to live,” Flores said.
He’d offered two air mattresses, keys to his office, and permission to
sleep there on weekends. For the better part of a year, Flores, who asked
to use only one of her two surnames, lived that way: Back and forth, spend
and scrimp. But there was no shower or kitchen at the office. And on this
Friday, someone was working late. Flores’ son, who asked to be referred to
by his middle name, Mateo, begged to go to a motel, but Flores told him if
they did, they’d have no money for food.
Still, she didn’t want to go to a shelter.
“Everything that I heard, it was something about drugs, it was something
about people being in a quarrel,” Flores said.
Maria Flores and her son Mateo embrace in the hallway of their new
apartment building. In 2019, the two were evicted from the apartment Mateo
had lived in since birth. Unique features of the Stay Over Program in the
gym at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School supported them as they
experienced homelessness. “I cannot complain, being in a shelter,” Flores
said, “At least you don’t feel so lonely.” Credit: Marissa Leshnov for the
There was one other option. A few months earlier, she’d heard about a
family shelter inside an elementary school gym. Every evening, after the
students and teachers left, partitions were snugged to the back wall,
creating three-sided squares for kids and caregivers to set up sleeping
pads on the floor. Cafeteria-style tables in a connected room hosted dinner
and, later, homework. Only families with a child enrolled in the San
Francisco Unified School District could be admitted, and Mateo was a high
“I didn’t want to,” Flores said of calling the school-based shelter that
Friday night, “but I was so tired.” Standing on the sidewalk in a
neighborhood known for
open-air drug dealing, with the sky growing darker, and then darker still,
she decided she and Mateo didn’t have a better option. She took out her
phone and dialed the number.
The idea of optimizing school district property
for evening and weekend use isn’t new, but Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8
Community School (BVHM, for short) appears to be the first modern public
elementary school to have hosted a long-term, overnight family shelter.
“As far as our knowledge in the entire country, we are the first people to
do it,” said San Francisco City Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who was
instrumental in advocating for the program.
Some objected: Shelter should not be the responsibility of a school, they
And yet, “We were the folks that were willing to do it,” said Nick
Chandler, the BVHM community school coordinator.
His school serves approximately
600 students in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District, three blocks
from the exclusive Adda Clevenger School and across the street from a
restaurant serving a $16 roasted octopus appetizer. Just under 60 percent
of the students are English language learners, and just over 60 percent
have been deemed socioeconomically disadvantaged, though that’s an
undercount according to the school’s staff who say many of their families
are also undocumented or under-documented.
One night in 2017, a desperate parent talking to Chandler in the school’s
front lobby asked: “Can we stay here?”
The answer that night was no, but the question hung in the air. The
school’s wellness team had noticed more and more families in crisis. They’d
try to make referrals to the city and nonprofits, but often nothing would
come of it. Sometimes the waitlists were too long and sometimes it wasn’t
clear what list a family should even be on.
“The process is so intense and it requires so much documentation and
follow-through and systemic understanding,” said Claudia DeLarios Morán,
BVHM’s principal. “So it was a frustrated group of social workers and
counselors and teachers saying, ‘What happened to this child?’”
Kids without a regular place to sleep at night weren’t showing up ready to
learn, Chandler added. “And how could they? Your brain is not relaxed.
You’re not in learning mode, you’re in survival mode, you’re in flight or
BVHM’s staff had been trained in trauma-informed care, but they wanted to
help kids not just to overcome, but to avoid altogether the experience of
sleeping in a car, living in an overcrowded apartment, or having a parent
stay in an abusive relationship to keep a roof over their heads. The staff
knew the office common area couldn’t work, but the gym was a different
story. Like most school gymnasiums, it has domed fluorescent lights affixed
to the rafters, blue gymnastics mats cushioning the walls, and basketball
hoops. The adjacent room, with those six tables and a microwave, sports a
When not a single teacher objected, the BVHM team brought the idea of
hosting a shelter for the school’s families to Ronen, the city supervisor,
and the group then pulled in Shamann Walton, a member of the San Francisco
Board of Education at the time. They were careful not to suggest having a
shelter would solve everything.
“This is a band aid,” Ronen said. “This is not a root-cause fix of the
problem of childhood homelessness in this country.”
Over the course of April and May 2018, Ronen, Walton and others fielded
questions at public meetings. “We didn’t ask Claudia [DeLarios Morán] and
Nick [Chandler] to take this on on their own,” Ronen said, “We stood up,
and we took the heat with them.”
And there was heat. A vocal minority worried that a shelter would draw an
unsavory crowd to the neighborhood, that the gym would be left smelling
like urine, the playground littered with needles and cigarette butts.
School administrators took questions, submitted during the meetings and
afterward, and created an FAQ document they posted online
“How will the administration guarantee … that no drugs, alcohol, or weapons
will come on to the premises?” is one. “Will people with a criminal record
… [or] mental illness be allowed to sleep in our school?”
The answers reflect patience with these two questions and others laden with
assumptions about who experiences homelessness and how: “The participants
will be BVHM students and their immediate families. These are the same
people at back to school night, performances, daily drop off and pick-up,”
the BVHM team replied.
Much of the pushback centered around, “Why us?” Some commenters worried
school administrators would be in over their heads running a shelter and
others suggested alternatives, like transitional housing or co-living
spaces. “Our program is a response to a lack of space in these,” the
administrators answered, adding that a third party would manage the BVHM
Another proposal: Ask other BVHM families to open their homes instead. The
school welcomed offers. They received none, Chandler said.
“The PTA meetings were hell, with this undercurrent of disliking poor
people,” said Sam Murphy, a white BVHM parent, who witnessed this
The school’s Spanish immersion program attracts some privileged families in
a competitive lottery system
and one woman told Murphy the shelter, by then dubbed the “Stay Over
Program,” would “lower the cachet of the school.”
A couple and their five children moved to San Francisco from Missouri.
Before arriving at BVHM, they lived in hotels and their Chevy Traverse,
which was broken into three times. Their teenager had worked to save up
money for Air Jordans to wear to her new school, but they were stolen,
along with her basketball. Here, two of the teen’s siblings return extra
sleeping pads to storage. Credit: Marissa Leshnov for the Hechinger Report
Despite the loud objections from some, the school had, in Chandler’s words,
a “real strong voice from our folks that had been there or had been in
similar situations.” With the bulk of the community on board and the
support of the mayor, the project moved forward.
It started as a pilot program, funded entirely by the city, with a joint
use agreement allowing a Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing
program to be operated on school district property by Dolores Street
Community Services, a community-based organization with experience running
shelters. This kind of interagency and public-private cooperation may seem
intuitive, but it can be quite a logistical feat
In this case, that included getting the approval of the fire department,
planning commission, and city attorney, as well as integrating the program
into the city’s preexisting web of access points and services — and, on top
of that, building political alliances.
“There are a hundred ways to shut this kind of idea down,” Ronen said. But
the idea persisted and turned into a plan and then a place.
The shelter soft launched in November 2018; in January 2019, after an
architect from the neighborhood offered to figure out how to install
showers beside the gym and a construction company did the work pro bono,
the Stay Over Program at BVHM, first of its kind, officially debuted.
Before then, Chandler said, he and other school staff “knew the families,
we didn’t know the services; the city knew the services, they did not know
the families.” Now, that has changed.
The idea that schools can act as resource hubs for students and their
families is known broadly as “community schooling” and has proven successful
across the country
“A vast body of research shows that schools and communities can mitigate
the effects of poverty by providing support to children and families to
address basic needs such as housing instability,” said Pedro Noguera, dean
of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education.
Students experiencing homelessness are more likely to display symptoms of
post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression — even behaviors
that look like ADHD. “[T]he experience of homelessness is associated with
difficulty with classroom task engagement and social engagement,” according
to a report by the Learning Policy Institute
(Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by
the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, one of the many funders of The
Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)
These students are also more likely to be referred for discipline,
including suspension. They are more likely to attend schools with
concentrated poverty, and they score significantly lower on state testing
than other economically disadvantaged students. Students grappling with
homelessness are also less likely to graduate high school and less likely
to attend college. They are more likely to change schools and be
“For English language learners experiencing homelessness,” the report
concludes, “fewer than 9 percent met or achieved state standards in
Nationally, 37 percent of students experiencing homelessness are
chronically absent, according to Barbara Duffield, executive director of
SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. That percentage
is likely much higher now, she said, in light of pandemic-related barriers.
A 2020 report <http://transformschools.ucla.edu/stateofcrisis/> from UCLA’s
Center for the Transformation of Schools, funded in part by the Chan
Zuckerberg Initiative, found that several indicators of educational
distress — including suspensions and absenteeism rates — are, on average,
worse for Black, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and multiracial
students experiencing homelessness. (The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative is one
of the many funders <https://hechingerreport.org/supporters/> of the
Hechinger Report.) Thanks to a racial knowledge gap
<https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10796126.2019.1591041> in the
data, it’s unclear whether that pattern extends to Latino students, said
UCLA’s Edwin Rivera, co-author of the 2020 report.
Children from a handful of families play together on top of one family’s
bed on the floor of the gym at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community
School. Credit: Marissa Leshnov for the Hechinger Report
Not enough BVHM families have used the Stay Over Program to make a dent in
the school’s overall statistics, but, said DeLarios Morán, “For families
that stayed there, absolutely it stabilized their attendance.”
Maribel Chávez, a first-grade teacher at BVHM, said that before one of her
students started sleeping in the gym, he usually arrived late and with an
“Not having a specific place that they are coming from every day, there
wasn’t a routine,” she said. He would miss the opening song and the preview
of the day’s schedule. She’d try to give him a quick recap and “scrounge up
some snack,” but it wasn’t enough. He threw objects, tried to leave the
classroom, and hit other students.
For a while, his was one of several families living in a single apartment.
He shared a room with his mom, Olga, who prefers to use only her first
name, and his two brothers. Then other residents of the unit started to
complain about his oldest brother cooking after his late shift. Little
conflicts became bigger ones until Olga found herself trying to hold off
using the bathroom so she wouldn’t run into anyone in the hallway. After
calling the police to say she suspected one woman had intentionally left
the stove on, filling the apartment with gas, she left. They stayed with a
variety of family members and friends for more than a month before Olga and
her two youngest sons landed in the BVHM gym.
With lights out at 9 p.m., breakfast every morning, and a transition
straight to the school’s before-care program, Chávez said, she found the
first grader “in my line and ready to go” at the start of each school day.”
She noticed a shift in his demeanor (“happier”) and behavior (“so much
calmer”). He and the other students who have utilized the Stay Over Program
“were able to come in and be present, to do their work and learn,” she said.
Soon, the benefit of small group instruction and literacy interventions
kicked in. “The other day we were reading together,” Chávez said, “and I
was like, ‘Wait! Wait. Wait. Did you just read that?’”
Stories like this one make DeLarios Morán feel that it is indeed her
school’s responsibility to help students find safe and reliable housing.
“If the child is not stable, that’s a barrier to their education,” she
said. “So that’s why we felt like as an educational institution, we had a
Through these doors sits a room with six cafeteria-style tables, lockers,
and a storage area with sleeping mats. In the connected gym, San Francisco
Unified School District families can set up beds on the floor each night,
as part of the Stay Over Program. Credit: Marissa Leshnov for the Hechinger
But while public schools are required to offer a handful of services to
students who are experiencing homelessness, the federal legislation that
channels money to districts to support those services can’t be
<https://schoolhouseconnection.org/learn/from-our-inboxes/> spent on
housing. The available funding, known as McKinney-Vento after two U.S.
Congressmen who championed the legislation, has long been grossly
inadequate. That said, other federal funding streams are available to
support a district-city partnership like this one, including money from
FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. State dollars are
often at hand. And in San Francisco, a business tax
passed in 2018, a 2020 health and recovery bond
and private donations <https://sfgov.org/sfc/give2sf/mayors-fund-homeless>
together provide hundreds of millions more.
Ronen, the city supervisor, acknowledged that San Francisco’s comparatively
large budget for addressing homelessness has facilitated the program, and
being a sanctuary city <https://sf.gov/information/sanctuary-city-ordinance>
helps too. She thinks any similar program would need a principal and staff
who aren’t scared of innovation, maintain a problem-solving mindset, and
see basic needs as part of their mission. But none of that is specific to
“It’s a community school mentality, and BVHM is not the only community
school in the country,” she said.
She did offer a caveat to others wishing to replicate the program: “It
should only happen if that is what your community is asking for,” she said.
“If this was top down, if I have this idea and impose it upon the school
and the school district, it would not have worked. But is San Francisco a
unicorn? I don’t think so.”
*Related: **A multilingual, multicultural call center helps families of
color cope with remote learning*
DeLarios Morán was more bullish: “They just have to follow the blueprint,”
she said. “We’ve done it now. So, it’s not like they have to create the
Dafne’s youngest sister pulls sleeping pads from day-time storage to the
gym to help her family set up their bed for the evening. The three girls
and their mother slept in their car for a month when pandemic job loss left
them experiencing homelessness. Credit: Gail Cornwall for the Hechinger
When the shelter first launched, it was only for BVHM families, but the
per-person cost to the city was too high to make fiscal sense. In March
2019, the school board voted unanimously to expand the program to include
students and families from any district school. Monthly occupancy jumped
approximately eight-fold: As of January 2020, more than 30 schools had
referred students, rendering the program cost-effective, according to a
January 2020 evaluation
by the San Francisco Controller’s Office.
Dafne is a junior in high school. Her family left the city after her mother
lost a catering job during the pandemic and couldn’t pay rent. They drove
to Orange County to stay with her mom’s aunt, just until things got better.
But a year passed, and then a few more months. When catered events resumed,
her mom got her job back and an invitation to stay at a friend’s place in
San Francisco until a few paychecks added up to enough for a rent deposit.
But four more people turned out to be too many for the friend’s husband,
leaving Dafne, her mom, and two sisters sleeping in their car.
Dafne said an elementary school gym isn’t an ideal place to sleep either.
At BVHM, she was regularly woken up by a shelter monitor walking by at
night and the persistent banging of the old building’s heating system, a
sound like a baseball bat colliding with an iron pipe. It punctuated
conversation at 2- to 20-second intervals one rainy night this winter. But
space heaters, or even white noise machines, aren’t an option because of
old electrical wiring.
Moving away meant Dafne lost her spot at the selective high school she’d
gotten into, but as a student at a different city high school now, her
plans remain ambitious. She wants to go to college and ultimately “focus on
real estate and flipping houses.” One of her sisters hopes to be a lawyer.
The other, a teacher. At BVHM, the three girls spread out across the tables
to do homework, much better than using flashlights in a crowded car, Dafne
And the gym felt much safer than the car had, with people peering in the
windows at all hours. “We would try to cover it, but it was still scary,”
*Related: **Children will bear the brunt of a looming eviction crises*
One of the program’s core components is to do more than shelter families
like Dafne’s; walking through the door brings with it entry into a case
management system that guides them through the complicated process of
finding affordable housing.
Back when she’d been evicted, Flores had connected with a few housing
programs, but “[t]hey just were talking about shelters,” she said. When she
and Mateo first arrived at BVHM in fall 2019, she brushed off case
management attempts because she didn’t want to hear more of the same.
Still, she appreciated having a reliable place to stay. “I cannot complain,
being in a shelter,” she said, “At least you don’t feel so lonely.”
Headaches she experienced while looking for housing every day started to
subside. She was sleeping again. “We were making jokes,” she said, “We had
Jacqui Portillo (left), from Dolores Street Community Services, is the
program director for the Stay Over Program. She works closely with Claudia
DeLarios Morán (right), the principal of Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8
Community School. “The way she talks, that’s what convinced me that I can
trust her,” said one woman experiencing homelessness of Portillo, “Jacqui
is like an angel for me.” Credit: Marissa Leshnov for the Hechinger Report
Many participants credit that atmosphere to Jacqui Portillo, the program
director from Dolores Street Community Services.
“The way she talks,” Flores said, “that’s what convinced me that I can
trust her. Jacqui is like an angel for me.”
Portillo grew up in El Salvador and went to six years of medical school
there, stopping shy of a degree. Instead, she became a nurse and helped run
her husband’s business. Their children lived a middle-class existence with
swimming lessons and their own rooms until the couple separated. That’s
when Portillo headed to the U.S. with her daughters, the oldest of whom was
8. They stayed, for years, in one half of a garage.
“When I came to this country, my life changed,” she said, “I didn’t have
language. I didn’t have money.”
She bought her children their first computer with singles, tips from a
waitressing gig. Now in their twenties, the oldest went to Wellesley, the
middle to Vassar, and “my baby,” she said, to U.C. Berkeley. Portillo wants
the kids in the Stay Over Program to have the same level of success.
Once she has a family in the gym, Portillo calls her contacts and asks them
to reach out. “If the family doesn’t answer calls from those contacts, she
said, “I ask them, ‘What’s happened? Jorge is calling you!’” She keeps
gently pestering until the connection is made: “We work with the social
worker from the school. We work with the immigration office. We work with
everybody,” she said.
For newcomer families especially, Portillo offers empathy, not sympathy.
And empathy is what fuels her determination to make the program’s small
budget stretch as far as possible. But Portillo refuses to take credit for
any accomplishments, including sacrificing her own “off” hours to keep the
gym open full-time over the 2021 holiday break rather than making everyone
leave by 7 each morning. “God was always with me,” she said.
Maria Flores carried this “crazy heavy” duffel bag with her all day for
over a year when she and her son Mateo experienced homelessness. It was the
toothbrush that weighed most heavily on her. “It’s something that is
private, something that nobody wants to see you use,” she said. And now it
stays at home. Credit: Marissa Leshnov for the Hechinger Report
Before the pandemic, experts believed a large number of students
experiencing homelessness were not identified; now, the situation is likely
much worse. These kids had even greater difficulties accessing online
instruction than their low-income, housed peers.
And yet, at BVHM, the Stay Over Program operated 24/7 during the district’s
protracted school closure. Children attended classes via Zoom in the room
with those cafeteria-style tables and the help of shelter monitors and a
case manager, who made sure adults stayed quiet in the gym next door.
During breaks they had access to the school’s playground and garden. Over
the course of 2020, the program served 146 students. When a family tested
positive for Covid, they quarantined in the school’s auditorium*.*
“Everything was so nice,” Flores said of her time staying in the gym. She
still texts with three of the women she met there. “We go and eat breakfast
and stuff. So, I have good memories. Really, I do.”
*Related: **420,000 homeless kids went missing from schools’ rolls last
year. They may never be found*
At first, Flores was a newbie, and then she was one of “the old ones.” But
others kept leaving, their housing success stories swirling in their wake,
and Flores realized she was the last. Eventually, she decided to let
Portillo help with her case management. Soon thereafter, she was placed in
a residential shelter with a private room for her and Mateo. It wasn’t what
she’d envisioned. “When I saw the room, it was like what’s in the
military,” she said. “A small room, and it has — what do you call it? —
Disappointed, she sat down and cried. So did Mateo. “I felt like I was so
abandoned,” Flores said.
She had kept all her meetings, done everything right, and still had so much
further to go to reclaim the type of home she’d had before being evicted.
Situations like this were one of the only negative findings in the
Controller’s evaluation. Participants called getting more permanent housing
a “waiting game” and said “people get bounced from place to place.”
During the school day, there is no trace of the Stay Over Program hosted at
night in the Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School gym. Credit: Gail
Cornwall for the Hechinger Report
One of the best things about the Stay Over Program, educators here said, is
that rather than adding a burden on educators, it has relieved one. Having
a clear protocol for connecting families with case managers who specialize
in housing has allowed teachers to teach and allows Chandler, the community
school coordinator, to focus on mental health interventions and other areas
“It let us stick to our expertise,” he said. He also noticed a higher level
of trust, both from families who’d utilized the program and others who now
believe he might actually have the power to help with their problems.
Part of that has to do with the Stay Over Program’s unique features. There
is no limit on the number of nights families can stay, families can reserve
spots rather than needing to line up for first-come-first-served entry each
night, and absence for a night or two doesn’t result in removal. That was
important to Flores when she first arrived. She and Mateo wanted to keep
sleeping at the office a few nights a week “to be like it used to be, just
the both of us,” she said.
These policies are probably also responsible for the program’s unusual
continuity. The evaluation
found that families stayed a median of 20 days, more than six times longer
than at San Francisco’s most comparable shelter, located in a Baptist
church. (It closed during the pandemic and has yet to reopen.) But it could
be the site. Of the families surveyed for the controller’s report, 79
percent said it was “very important” to be able to stay somewhere familiar,
like their child’s school or another school in the district.
When first asked, more than 90 percent of the survey respondents reported
that Stay Over Program staff, 90 percent of whom are bilingual, treated
them “excellent” or “good.” After they’d stayed two weeks or more, still
close to 80 percent said the same. Nearly all said their child really liked
(or felt very comfortable) staying in the gym, a number that surprised
Ronen given initial concerns about students facing stigma. Duffield, the
expert on national homelessness policy, found these results “remarkable.”
The positive reviews don’t mean everything is perfect. Flores said she and
Mateo couldn’t take advantage of the free dinner provided, because 7 p.m.
was too late for him to eat, but the Stay Over Program can’t open any
earlier because BVHM’s after-school program uses the space. Families only
have access to small lockers and otherwise have to carry their belongings
in and out each day. Having to shower before 6:00 a.m. on the weekend was
so early for Glen McCoy and the grandchild he and his wife are raising,
that they would drive to a Safeway parking lot and fall back to sleep in
the car. Some nights, the banging of the pipes just doesn’t let up.
And yet, Olga — the mom of the now-reading 6-year-old — described the space
as “tranquilo,” calm. She stopped having panic attacks and got treatment
for a urinary tract infection she’d developed trying to avoid using the
bathroom in her shared apartment.
The stability and community offered by the program is temporary, and the
path to stable housing provided by this district-city partnership is as
long and frustrating for each individual family as the pursuit of
eliminating homelessness has been for San Francisco and the nation. But
it’s something. And for individual children it has been everything.
“We will not fix homelessness until the federal government believes that
housing is a human right,” Ronen said. “Hopefully we will not need [a
program like] this in the future, but right now we do.”
Often, the first family to arrive will claim a corner spot with two walls
of the gym and one partition making a three-sided square. It’s the only
sleeping area with a shelf to store belongings. Credit: Marissa Leshnov for
the Hechinger Report
Flores and Mateo hadn’t actually been abandoned. They continued to get help
from a caseworker, and they finally moved into a subsidized studio
apartment in November 2021.
There’s a bathroom they can access any day, at any time. Their showers
don’t have a time limit. Flores thinks it sounds silly, but of everything
in that crazy-heavy duffel bag she carried around for more than two years,
it was the toothbrush that weighed most heavily on her. “It’s something
that is private, something that nobody wants to see you use,” she said. And
now it stays at home.
They got boxes out of storage. “I have my furniture,” Flores said, “my
vacuum!” All the clothes she had looked forward to wearing again no longer
fit, a consequence of eating out for more than two years. But now that they
have a kitchen, she’s cooking again: “We’re trying to eat some healthy
things,” she said.
Mateo doesn’t have to deal with the bunk beds that creaked so loudly he
worried about waking his mom, he’s not awoken by shelter monitors at night,
and a bed in the apartment beats an air mattress in an office. He’s getting
the sleep he needs to focus on his classes at the City College of San
Francisco: math, English, and criminal investigation.
But he still doesn’t have his own room, and Flores said they won’t stay
“It’s another stop,” she said. “We are getting closer.”
*This story about students experiencing homelessness
produced by *The Hechinger Report*, a nonprofit, independent news
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