January 23, 2019

This Bay Area nonprofit is like a free Airbnb for people in need

In one the most expensive housing markets in the country, Safe Time Home Sharing pairs homeowners who have a spare room with those who are struggling

The housing crisis in the Bay Area has inspired many locals to come up with solutions in their own communities. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Editor’s note: We first published this essay from the Bay Area nonprofit Safe Time Home Sharing in January 2018. Since then, the organization’s innovative approach to providing housing to those in need has been shared with nearly a dozen other groups who are considering similar efforts in their neighborhoods, says Safe Time founder Chuck Grant. He said the organization is continuing to refine the policies, procedures, documentation, and outreach for both hosts and guests. “We are very proud that a small, all-volunteer group can make a meaningful, life-changing difference to at least a few people each month. We hope that others will advance these efforts in their own area,” he told us.

As affordable housing continues to be a focus of many cities across the country, we are re-sharing this story of how individuals with a great idea can make a difference in their communities. Below is the original essay from Safe Time board members Kenneth J. Berniker and Tina Hamilton, published on Jan. 25, 2018.

America faces a crisis of homelessness, and more families fall into homelessness every day as their resources evaporate after job loss or a sudden expense. Becoming homeless can be a devastating and potentially irreversible life change.

Safe Time Home Sharing (STH) is a new San Francisco-area nonprofit that provides a lifeline to those about to become homeless, by recruiting volunteers who offer free, temporary space in their own homes. The concept of opening one’s home is not new, but STH establishes a system that brings hosts and applicants together and assures compatibility and safety.

In early 2017 a small group of concerned citizens founded STH, which has evolved to become a formal nonprofit with policies and procedures to screen potential hosts and guests. The key questions have been: Can we find willing hosts? Can we arrange safe matches? Will the outcomes be successful?

After nine months of operations we have made about 20 placements. Here are some of the generous hosts who stepped forward:

  • TB is a single professional who works from home and has extra rooms. When she was growing up, her parents often took in needy folks. So far, she’s hosted a young mother with a child, a university student, a woman with a dog, and a 60-plus year-old woman who lost her job. TB has made lasting relationships with her guests and stands ready to host again. She knows that for her guests, the stress-free stay with no financial pressure has given them the ability to take positive steps forward.
  • MD is a single retired health scientist with a large home. She has been a dedicated volunteer her entire life. One of her friends from a local church told her about STH and she immediately signed up as a host. She has hosted five times.

  • L and G are married professionals with two young children and an extra bedroom and bath. They saw a TV program about homeless college students and wanted to help, so they have hosted both a student and a low-income woman who needed to regroup. They plan to host again and feel it is beneficial for their young children, providing new experiences and demonstrating kindness and generosity.

  • LB is a single artist and senior citizen with extra space in her home. It grieved her to drive past homeless camps, feeling there was nothing she could do to help. In STH she saw an opportunity to contribute, reassured by the reference-checking and sequence of introductory meetings with guests. LB accepted a female guest for a month, then extended the stay to five months.

  • SP is a single, recently retired nurse with a separate unit in her home. Two days before Christmas she accepted a young mother with two toddlers who had become estranged from their family and were living in a car. Susan went beyond what’s expected of a host—she quickly created a Christmas for the family: put up a tree, baked cookies, and bought presents for the little girls.

  • B and E are married professionals with two children. They took in a family of three who had fallen on hard times and were in imminent danger of becoming homeless. This generosity permitted the child to remain in his current school without interruption and allowed the parents time to focus on new employment.

So, to answer our questions:

Can we find willing hosts?

Yes, and we believe that further awareness of our program and others like it will inspire more hosts to step forward. Of course our hosts sacrifice some of the quiet and comfort of their homes by integrating others into their lives temporarily, but it speaks volumes that every host has either re-hosted or stands ready to do so.

Can we arrange safe matches?

Yes. After nine months of operation we feel comfortable that our reference checking and prescribed sequence of compatibility meetings assure good matches.

We obtain and check references for both hosts and guests and also get permission for background checks. We help assure compatibility by first arranging a meeting between the parties at a coffee shop, followed by a second meeting on a subsequent day at the home. We provide a checklist of important considerations to discuss (for example, visitors policy, kitchen privileges, quiet times, etc.). Finally, with a tentative agreement, the parties begin a brief trial period to confirm it will work for the agreed temporary time period.

You can read more about this process on our website.

Will the outcomes be successful?

We have seen that our guests save money and regroup in the stress-free shelter we have arranged. Also, they have benefited from the compassionate support of their hosts. Those with whom we have stayed in contact are making good progress.

Readers who want more information should Executive Director Chuck Grant at cgrant@safetimehost.org.

Kenneth J. Berniker and Tina Hamilton

Safe Time Host

Kenneth J. Berniker is a retired physician in California. He volunteers at a local food pantry, helps organize neighborhood activities, and edits a newsletter for fellow retirees.

Tina Hamilton is a software marketing executive from Montana and is on the board of directors for nonprofits Safe Time and Brightways Learning.