Since the spring, Safe Time staff have been spreading the word at conferences and outside grocery stores about their mission. Photo: Chuck Grant

For Autumn Leigh Shearer, graduating from UC Berkeley this past May did not feel like a joyous occasion.

“I knew when I crossed the stage it was going to get ugly,” said Shearer, 30. “I knew I was walking into this abyss.”

With each step across the stage, she walked closer to homelessness.

Despite coping with vision loss during her time at Cal, Shearer had thrived in college. She majored in media studies, oversaw a staff of 40 as KALX’s publicity director and became the station’s first ever blind DJ. Originally from Southern California, Shearer made a new home with her mother and her guide dogs at University Village in Albany, UC Berkeley’s housing for students living with spouses or dependents.

But the mother and daughter have to move out of the complex at the end of July. They have no idea where they will go next.

Until now, the two have subsisted on $1,400 a month in disability payments (Shearer’s mother uses a walker to get around because of complications from a knee surgery) and have borrowed money to make up the rest of their $2,000 rent. Shearer has spent the better part of the last year calling housing agency after housing agency, trying unsuccessfully to get on years-long waitlists for affordable housing. A lapsed Catholic, she even called up churches, but none were able to offer refuge. Meanwhile, she applied to upwards of 100 jobs, assuming her prestigious education could land her a stable income. Like some of her classmates, she looked to temp agencies, but most of the positions available were not accessible for a blind employee.

“I went to every career fair and every mixer” on campus, said an exhausted Shearer amid moving boxes in her Albany apartment on Sunday. “I don’t want to be on government assistance. I’m willing to work my butt off, but at the end of the day I can’t hire myself.”

Shearer eventually secured a paid two-month internship at Palisades Media in Los Angeles, which begins at the end of the month. But that leaves her 69-year-old mother — who will have emergency eye surgery next week — and her retired guide dog Beauty on the very brink of homelessness. Shearer, who is also saddled with $41,000 in student loan debt, has spent nights sobbing to herself in bed.

Recently, however, Shearer found an option that could possibly provide a bit of relief.

After posting about their situation the University Village Facebook group, Shearer heard from Safe Time, a new East Bay nonprofit that places people in immediate need of housing with private individuals willing to host them for a short period of time.

The Kensington-based organization has set up four placements so far and recently turned its attention to Berkeley in hopes of securing temporary housing for needy students and others. Nobody has stepped forward to host Shearer’s mother — or Shearer, if the internship does not turn into a job — yet, but the organization is hopeful someone will.

Safe Time president Chuck Grant does not have a background in housing or homelessness work. He moved to Berkeley in 1962 and worked in education research and technology after receiving his Ph.D. in computer science from Cal. But he felt he could not ignore the worsening housing crisis, and developed the idea for Safe Time after learning about a similar European program and reading the stories from the San Francisco Chronicle’s charity fund for homeless residents.

He has been emboldened by the early response to the program.

“It’s amazing to me what people do. It’s heartwarming,” he said. One potential host offered to move into the loft in her apartment so a guest could take her room. Another said they would rid their home of liquor if the guest was a recovering alcoholic.

Grant may be optimistic about the potential of his project, but he is not naive. He is the first to acknowledge that Safe Time will not work for everyone. Hosts and guests must get along, and not threaten each other’s safety.

While establishing the program in Contra Costa County in the spring, he “learned the lay of the land – where to find the kind of people who would need services and who would be appropriate in people’s homes.”

Safe Time has not yet accepted applicants who approach on the program on their own, but instead takes referrals from social workers who can vouch for people in immediate need of short-term housing — people like Shearer who are looking for work, those saving up to make the first and last month’s rent and those who need to get back on their feet after an eviction.

Safe Time guests are also required to have some kind of exit plan.

“You can’t go up to people and say, ‘Are you willing to take in a stranger for the rest of your lives?'” Grant said.

Both prospective hosts and guests have to submit applications and references. Guests cannot have any addictions or violence in their lives. Hosts can also specify the preferred gender of their guests, and whether they would like to host children as well. It is too early to tell whether those options will skew the population that ends up being served by the organization.

Once two people are matched up, they meet multiple times to determine whether they are compatible.

“I had to get comfortable with the process before I volunteered to host,” said Liz Maw, whose family is gearing up for a two-week guest at their Kensington house in August. The guest room is next door to her kids’ rooms, so she had to make sure it was a good match.

Don Graves, the longtime coordinator of Contra Costa County Child and Family Services’ Independent Living Skills Program, has referred multiple clients to Safe Time, which he says begins to fill a massive void. Graves works with foster care youth after they “age out” of the system, teaching them money management, helping them with job applications and setting them up with transitional housing — when it is available.

“When these youth emancipate at 21 they run into difficulties where there are no resources available to them other than shelters,” Graves said.

Housing is scarce enough that Graves had begun working on establishing a county-run program to set his young clients up with empty-nesters.

“We never really finalized that vision. So when I learned about Safe Time, it was like, this is exactly what we were doing, but it takes out the legwork,” he said.

Recently, a former client of Graves’ who had been living in Texas with her young son reached out to him. She had job prospects in the Bay Area but could not find an affordable, safe place to live with her child. Graves contacted Grant and the client, Nikkii Creer, ended up with a three-month placement in an El Cerrito home.

“Often people just need a break. I have space and I want to contribute,” wrote the host, Teryl Burt, in a testimonial for Safe Time. “During their brief stay, Nikkii received a job offer and now seems to have a good plan forward.”

Burt, who lives alone, wrote that she not only wanted to help out but also genuinely enjoyed the company of her guests. Other hosts, like Maw, who works at a nonprofit, do not necessarily have a lot of money to donate but have managed to find a rare stable living situation in the Bay Area and want to share it with others.

Safe Time is not quite flush with cash either: Grant and other founders funded the launch of the organization, and the five staffers are all volunteers.

But witnessing the interest on both ends of the placements, Grant can’t help but wonder about the power of the model.

“We have secret dreams about a groundswell, about this becoming a more common thing,” he said.

Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...