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East Bay residents open their homes to families seeking shelter

Ariel Plotnick
Nikkii Creer (left) and Teryl Burt (right) sit in Burt’s living room on two weeks into their stay together as part of the Safe Time program.";

Safe Time Home Sharing, a new nonprofit organization, is trying to alleviate the homelessness crisis by asking East Bay residents to open their homes, and temporarily donate their extra bedrooms to those in need.

Two women and a little boy are sitting around a kitchen table, looking out over Wildcat Canyon. A hawk perches outside the kitchen window.

“Look, he’s back!” exclaims five-year-old Demareau.

Demareau and his mom, Nikkii Creer, met and moved in with Teryl Burt just yesterday. They are living together thanks to a new program called Safe Time, which  matches those at risk of falling into homelessness with host families who will take them in for up to 90 days. They are some of Safe Time’s first participants.

The day Creer moved in, Burt started a diary. She writes, in her first entry.  

“Nikkii arrives an hour early. I am not ready. Inconsiderate or super responsible? Are we compatible? I look around and realize this is not a kid friendly house. Too much glass and pottery….In walks a short energetic woman and a tall handsome child. Mom can I go on that swing? C’mon Mom! Excitement and joy floods the air. We are all happy.”

Creer is twenty-seven. She’s petite and wears bright, cheerful colors.  She grew up in the foster care system, in and out of homelessness for most of her young adult life. Her son sits on her lap.

“He's going to kindergarten so he's learning his letters right now. He's not really fond of learning letters and he just wants to play all the time,” Creer says. “We've been to the marina a lot since we've been here. We collected seashells. He wants to make necklaces out of them so yeah that's the next thing to do on the list.”

Creative solutions

Creer is one of the more than 7,000 homeless people in the Bay Area, and right now, finding shelter in San Francisco and the East Bay is nearly impossible, according to Kelley Cutler of San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness.

“We have huge waitlists for everything...for housing and for shelters,” Cutler says. “Here in SF we have over 1,000 people on the single-adult-shelter waitlist for a temporary bed. And so this isn’t even including families and children, that’s a whole other waitlist. We do need to get creative, because right now we don’t have options.”

Programs like Safe Time are one way to get creative. Chuck Grant, the company’s CEO, says he was inspired by reading local news reporting on the homelessness crisis, and decided he wanted to help.

“People may be evicted, may be foreclosed upon, they may have lost their job, they may have had a significant medical expense, there may be a family separation involved, or ... someone you know has no place to turn. And we can be that place to turn,” Grant says.

Safe Time vets both the hosts and guests, getting referrals from churches and schools, and makes sure guests are nonviolent and not drug addicted.

But pairing people from two different life backgrounds together could make for some sticky roommate situations. Burt, who grew up in a family that hosted homeless individuals, is trying to lay the groundwork for open communication.

“It's just charming to have these two,”  Burt says. “And that could change right, Nikki? We can get into a big argument tomorrow. But if you get mad at me for something you have to say and if I get mad at you for something I have to say and then there comes not compromise, but cooperation.”

The Challenge of Temporary Solutions

A few weeks later, things seem to be going well. Burt and Creer keep similar hours and rarely run into each other. In fact, Creer doesn’t spend much time in the house. Though she just moved in, she’s already looking for her own apartment.

"Here in SF we have over 1,000 people on the single-adult-shelter waitlist for a temporary bed. And so this isn't even including families and children, that's a whole other waitlist. We do need to get creative, because right now we don't have options." —Kelly Cutler, Coalition on Homelessness.

Burt is loose on the move-out date, but Safe Time suggests guests stay with hosts for up to 90 days.  Many homelessness navigation programs also use the temporary 30, 60 or 90 day rule. The hope is, after a month or two with shelter, people like Creer will regroup and find permanent housing. But Creer is worried she won’t find an affordable apartment.

“I don’t want to put myself in that predicament ‘cause [we] could return to homelessness again that fast,” Creer says.

This fear of ending up homeless again is a real issue. Cutler of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness explains that this process of gaining and then losing housing is called “churn.”

“Churn is a thing,” Cutler says, “where folks go into a shelter with 90 days ... try really hard to get housing, and [are] back out on the street.”

As this process of “gaining some stability and then losing it” progresses, she says, “we find that people start losing hope.”

So people go from program to program, shelter to shelter, finding solutions as fast as they can.

While temporary programs like Safe Time are the most common way to address the homelessness issue, Cutler describes them as “little bandaids.”

While it’s not a long-term solution, many people believe a band aid is better than nothing.

But, there are lots of logistics to sort out. Securing shelter does not guarantee that it will be easy to coordinate social services, employment, childcare, and healthcare.

“It’s not just housing,” Cutler says. “You still need community.”

Moving out and moving on

Creer has been trying to solve the logistics puzzle all summer, driving up and down the West Coast, searching for an affordable spot that will also accept her social services. After a rushed trip to Seattle where she tried to relocate, and a few long weekends in Sacramento crashing with family, she’s back in El Cerrito with Burt.

“I was thinking of moving out [of Burt’s house] today. It’s just costing me a lot more money to come back and forth from Sacramento to Richmond,” Creer explained.

Burt had no idea Creer was planning on moving out so quickly.

“I was kind of stunned by today, I have to tell you. I really was stunned,” Burt tells me a few hours later.

“I don’t know. I’m so her supporter in every way. And I just feel like maybe she misrepresented her family situation. I mean why are we here? So I don’t know, I’m suddenly confused what’s going on,” Burt says. “I mean it’s still been a very positive experience.”

The past few weeks were weighing on Burt. She had a lot of questions. If Creer was spending so much time in Sacramento with family, did she really need housing? What exactly was she supposed to be, a landlord or a friend?

It’s these questions that can frequently come up when a program doesn’t have comprehensive support for hosts and guests. Safe Time has a yearly budget of only $1,500, and all the employees are volunteers.

Cutler suggests that in a program like Safe Time, mediation would address these issues.

“Communication is a major factor in success. I would want to support and connect the hosts to each other, so we could integrate everyone. That way folks aren’t going through it alone,” Cutler says.

A few days after that drive home with Burt, Creer moved out. She’s now living in  Sacramento, searching for a job.

Burt, meanwhile, took in two new SafeTime guests. SafeTime now has 6 active hosts, and has housed around 10 people so far. Their waitlist is already starting to grow.