OAKLAND, California — For years, the abandoned gas station parking lot sat empty in the shadow of Oakland’s Coliseum Stadium, filling with the detritus of unused urban spaces — single sneakers, upended trash bags, scraggly weeds, used needles, and blown-out tires. But after a massive cleaning operation earlier this year, a group of tiny houses began appearing on the unused lot in splashes of vibrant colors.
Set to open in January 2021, it is the nation’s first Tiny House Village that was built for homeless youth, by the homeless youth themselves.
In contrast to the previously drab concrete lot, lively colors now dominate with 300 cheerfully painted planters for gardens and trees, a fence with hundreds of individually painted prayers and messages of love, two large yurts, and a total of 26 tiny homes for homeless youth.
The Tiny House Village is an ambitious project of Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA), an interfaith arts-therapy support network for homeless youth in Berkeley, California. It is the result of four years of networking with more than 32 Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations, 1,700 volunteers, $1.2 million in donations, and hundreds of hours of community and city meetings.
Reginald Gentry, 25, is an artist who has been a part of YSA for four years, after experiencing housing instability due to a fire that destroyed his grandmother’s house.
“The best way to stop a problem or crisis is to stop it at its roots,” said Gentry. “This [Tiny House Village] is a model, this is not a cure-all project.”
“Housing 26 youth is nothing compared to housing so many others. But we’re not just trying to make history in the United States, we actually see that tiny houses and tiny house villages can be a viable solution — or a viable weapon — against the homelessness crisis,” said Gentry.
Tiny houses and tiny house villages can be a viable solution — or a viable weapon — against the homelessness crisis
The homeless crisis in the Bay Area is increasingly widespread: Many visitors are shocked by the sprawling tent encampments, where an estimated 28,200 people have set up shantytowns beneath highway overpasses.
A dream is planted
Some 20 percent of people experiencing housing instability are unaccompanied youth under the age of 25, which is one of the reasons why Sally Hindman founded Youth Spirit Artworks in 2007 as a safe place for homeless youth to go during the day, when overnight shelters are closed. The organization provides modest stipends for aspiring artists to take part in the organization’s programming, which offers a variety of art classes and therapy to help the youth deal with some of the trauma that may have led them to experience homelessness or housing instability in the first place.
“In 2016, we were holding this winter emergency warming shelter for the homeless youth at the site 70 hours a week,” Hindman said. It was an especially cold and rainy winter, with El Nino downpours. During their community organizing sessions, participants started exploring issues they wanted to tackle.
“Many of the youth from the youth shelter just said ‘get us out of here,’” Hindman said. “Some of them had been homeless for three years with no permanent housing, sleeping on a church floor, with no privacy, no space or independence or dignity. They really wanted to be able to get out of the youth shelter and into some kind of housing that would work for them.”
Youth experiencing homelessness find there are few housing resources dedicated specifically towards that sector’s unique challenges and needs. Many will not qualify for permanent housing for homeless adults, and in some cases, when the youth are victims of sexual abuse or exploitation, it isn’t appropriate for them to be housed with an older population.
For youth, a quick intervention to stable housing can make a difference between a lifetime of homelessness and getting back into school and a safe living situation.
A tiny house can be simple enough to construct for someone with minimal experience. It is usually defined as home between 100 to 400 square feet (9.3 to 37 square meters) as opposed to the average American home of 2,600 square feet (circa 241.5 meters). One of the main benefits is that, depending on local regulations, tiny houses may not need bureaucratic approval. (This is not the case in California.)
The tiny house trend has swept the nation, with Netflix shows, blogs, hashtags (#tinyhouselife), and dozens of companies that will customize a house for you, from the luxurious to the bare bones.
Gentry said the youth quickly latched onto the idea of a village comprised of multiple tiny homes, which would simultaneously provide community while giving each resident privacy and autonomy. They were attracted by their affordability and the fact that with a little training and assistance, the artists at YSA could probably build most of the homes themselves, allowing them to customize and use the entire house as an artistic canvas.
As the project grew to encompass more religious congregations and more build sites, the tiny homes provided another advantage: they were built on trailers, which made them easily transportable from location to location, allowing them to spread out to multiple sites and engage more volunteers rather than requiring one large construction area. Some congregations even hosted a tiny house for a week or two, giving tours to their members and drumming up support for the project.
Justin Jones, 23, who has been one of two Tiny House Village leaders since August 2019, said that the youth chose tiny houses because it felt much more attainable than raising the funds to buy or lease an entire building.
In March 2017, a group of five YSA artists, including Gentry, began construction on their first tiny house prototype. First they learned how to create a 3D architectural model in the computer program Sketchup, then after finalizing their design they worked with a contractor to learn basic construction skills. Over the next seven months, the first tiny house took shape in the backyard of the YSA office.
“Tre [the contractor, John Tre’ Brown III] would tell us, ‘I can have my company build this is a week or two,’” Gentry said. “But it took all those months because it was a learning experience. We wanted to drag out the building so people could see the process along the way.”
Around the time that the first tiny house was under construction, the organization ran into a major stumbling block. They had identified a perfect location, just around the corner from the YSA office in south Berkeley, a city that has been a bastion of liberalism and community initiatives. But at the first meeting to present the proposal for YSA’s Tiny House Village, the neighbors were antagonistic.
“We had a good amount of skeptics there, they were kind of combative, and it was a kind of racially charged discussion just by the way it looked,” Gentry said. “Most of us [YSA youth] were ethnic, and then everyone who was sitting down was white. South Berkeley can be kind of ‘bougie,’ with a Berkeley hills mentality, and they had this ‘not in my backyard’ thing. They were already writing us off.”
Residents were concerned about noise, substance abuse, the screening process for residents, and whether the Village would attract more homeless people to the area. Eventually, the neighbors pressured the city of Berkeley not to allow YSA to build the Village there.
Hindman recalls this moment as the time when they considered giving up. “Let’s just forget this, it’s too hard,” she remembers thinking.
But letters to dozens of local synagogues, churches, mosques, and religious organizations had already gone out to announce the YSA’s Interfaith Tiny House Village.
Hindman is a Quaker minister, and her husband and daughter are Jewish. Connecting with other religious organizations is deep within the DNA of Youth Spirit Artworks, and Hindman knew that the gargantuan effort of planning and building a village would take an entire village.
Established religious organizations seemed like the natural partner as it became clear that in order for the Tiny House Village to succeed, they would need massive community support. More than 30 congregations answered the call, including Congregation Beth El in Berkeley and Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland, two of the project’s lead congregational partners, as well as Congregation Beth Israel, Congregation Netivot Shalom, Temple Beth Abraham, and Temple Sinai.
Hindman is quick to point out that while YSA gained incredible support from the 32 different faith groups, the youth were the leaders of the project at every step of the way. It was the youth who realized that if they built their own perimeter fence, they could save $75,000. They gathered the supplies and then put out a call to congregations, asking them to paint prayers and blessings on hundreds of planks to form a wooden fence.
“Either there’s a prayer or blessing written on the plank, or there’s a prayer and blessing in the intention that went into making the plank, that will go into surrounding the village,” said youth leader Jones.
The blessings surround the entire village, enveloping the community in an embrace woven with the prayers of dozens of different religious congregations.
“Part of the mission statement at YSA is ‘Art Saves Lives,’” Jones said. “All the fence murals and tiny house murals contribute to our mission statement and the success as a whole. It’s about having an outlet such as art and putting it on something that will provide housing and stability for someone. It’s evident that the mission statement is successful and real.”
An organizing cycle and search for purpose
Just as YSA was facing a major roadblock in terms of location, Congregation Beth El, a large reform congregation in Berkeley, was looking for an organization to support through an innovative Tikkun Olam model.
Rabbi Rebekah Stern, who was then associate rabbi, was leading the congregation through its first round of a process called “congregation-based community organizing cycle,” a grassroots organizing tool born out of labor movements.
“The core issue that bubbled to the surface was housing, which is a huge problem in the Bay Area, and we were casting about for a local organization and advocacy efforts that would make a meaningful difference,” said Stern.
That’s when Beth El got the letter about YSA’s Tiny House Village asking congregations to take an active role helping to plan and build the homes. After examining different organizations, Beth El chose YSA as their central Tikkun Olam [“Healing the World” or social justice] project for the approximately three-year cycle.
In the beginning, Beth El took an active role in helping YSA youth leaders figure out a way to keep the Village dream alive as they searched for a new location.
“The project had almost launched and hit a major snag because of NIMBYism about where the village was going to be. Our work was asking them questions: What is the work at any given moment? We were also working with other congregations at this time,” said Stern.
It took a year of planning and discussions, guided by many community and religious leaders and the YSA artists, including hundreds of meetings with the Berkeley and Oakland city councils, planning commissions, neighborhood groups, architects, urban planners, and interfaith organizations, among others, before the first house frames began to get hammered into place.
Eventually, YSA gave up on trying to find a location in Berkeley, and looked to Oakland, where the city jumped at the opportunity. The city provided a three-year lease to the location near the Coliseum at no cost and provided a $360,000 three-year grant for operational costs.
Oakland provided a three-year lease to the location near the Coliseum at no cost and provided a $360,000 three-year grant for operational costs
The construction was spread out to a number of different locations, at the YSA office as well as warehouses and a church’s parking lot. Industry professionals trained a core group of YSA youth and volunteers as build leaders, and those leaders guided the construction at each site. Last fall, each site hosted massive build days with over 100 volunteers at a time.
“We had 100 volunteers from our congregation, everything from managing power tools and hammering and building to painting and providing food for all the volunteers, because it was pre-Covid and we could do that, we could share food together,” Stern said.
“One of the things I’ve learned in moving through the organizing cycle is feeling like everything might just fall apart is a part of the whole process,” Stern said. “There were certainly many times along the way when we felt like this whole thing is really shaky.
“But by contrast, to watch this village just appear little by little, it was so powerful,” Stern added, saying the project immediately brought to mind the biblical story of the Israelites building the Mishkan, or Holy Ark.
“The first thing they’re given after guidelines for living after the revelation at Sinai is a project,” she said. “Maybe God realizes they need to do something together, a shared building project where everyone has a role.”
Even when the COVID pandemic started and put an end to the 100-plus volunteer days, a dedicated group of Beth El volunteers continued to build in small groups in the backyard of the YSA office, three days a week, from March until August, when the homes were moved to the final location for the Village.
Hammering in the last nails
Volunteers are furiously working at the site to get the area ready for a January 4 move-in. The original hope was to get the residents in the homes before the winter rains and the flu season begin, which takes on added urgency this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. But issues connecting the site to the power grid have pushed the opening date to 2021. Eventually, the site will produce its own power with solar panels on roofs of the tiny homes, but first they must connect to the city’s electricity grid.
Just ahead of Thanksgiving, YSA also received notice that Alameda County awarded the project a two-year Housing & Community Development “Homeless Provider Incubator Grant.” The grant provides $297,000 for infrastructure and on-boarding the first cohort of residents.
A total of 22 homeless youth will live on the site, each for a period of two years, along with four resident assistants. The residents will be aged 18 to 23 when moving to the site, since participants age out of YSA programming at 26. They will pay 1/3 of their income in rent, whether that is from a job or government assistance. The Village will also act as a hub, connecting the youth with a range of social services and job training opportunities.
“It’s only 22 homes for youth in this tiny house village, but for each individual person who’s going to live in one of them, it will mean the world,” said Stern. “There’s the saying, when you save a life, you save the world. Did we solve youth homelessness? No. But did we make a significant impact for the people who are going to get to live in these homes? Unquestionably so.”