A volunteer in a white hardhat hammer boards on the roof of a tiny house.

Interfaith volunteers aim to house homeless youth in tiny homes

on September 11, 2019

Last weekend, volunteers gathered in a West Oakland lot to construct a tiny home community intended just for young residents. Members of East Bay interfaith organizations worked alongside architects, artists, and young activists at 2116 Brush Street, where they hammered away at 12 small wooden structures, each large enough to house one person. Eventually, homeless and unstably-housed people ages 18 to 25 will occupy these buildings.

Construction on the houses began earlier this summer, and Sunday was the final day of the tiny house build. Volunteers wearing white hardhats installed siding onto the 8-by-10 buildings, while others placed flashing on windows to protect their interiors from cold, damp winters. Crews of two took turns painting the tiny houses bright shades of teal, magenta and forest green.

On Saturday, Youth Spirit Artworks board member Reginald Gentry sat near the lot’s entrance, handing a nametag and a hardhat to each new volunteer. Around 125 of them showed up that day, give or take, Gentry estimated. They included members of around 30 congregations, including Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El and the Unitarian Universalist Church, and Dykes with Drills, a queer building collective.

The tiny homes are part of the 100 Homes for Homeless Youth initiative, a project begun in January, 2016 by Youth Spirit Artworks, an arts job training nonprofit. Staff members offer employment, education, and leadership opportunities to homeless and low-income young people. The idea for a tiny home village “started as a discussion, just coming up with a huge brainstorm of ideas,” said YSA senior artist Mary Stackiewicz, speaking by phone Saturday evening. “One of the youths said, ‘I wish I had a tiny house to live in.’”

The tiny houses will provide young people with “a roof over their heads and a place to stay that’s warm” while they navigate job placement and educational programs, Stackiewicz said.

Before she joined the organization as a staff member, Stackiewicz participated in YSA’s youth programs herself. “I was homeless at the time,” she said. Now, Stackiewicz teaches art to YSA participants, and is a practicing artist. “If you accompany jobs training, case management, all into one program, including housing, that would totally help break the cycle of homelessness,” she said. “It’s basically what I got, without the housing. And now I’m housed, and I went through the entire program.”

One volunteer stands on a ladder, hammering a window on a red tiny house, while another stabilizes the ladder.
Volunteers install flashing on the window of a tiny house.

YSA partnered with the Housing Consortium of the East Bay, an affordable housing nonprofit, to create the tiny homes, which the California Department of Housing and Community Development defines as structures with a footprint between 80 to 400 square feet. Residents can live in the homes for up to three years, YSA executive director Sally Hindman said in a phone call.

Though tiny house communities exist in the East Bay, few exclusively serve people ages 18 to 24, also known as transition-age youth. In a phone conversation, Jevon Wilkes, executive director of the California Coalition for Youth, cited housing instability, transitioning into higher education, and leaving the foster care system as some of the challenges faced by this age group.

In 2017, faculty in Laney College’s carpentry department built two tiny homes for college students. Otherwise, there are only 36 shelter beds reserved for youth in Alameda County, according to the East Oakland Community Project, an organization that provides emergency and transitional housing services.

According to a 2019 point-in time survey conducted by county officials and the firm Applied Social Research, of the 8,022 homeless people in Alameda County, 9 percent were 18 to 25 years old. The U.S. Department of Housing and Development mandates point-in-time surveys, which count the number of sheltered and unsheltered people present on a single day. Young people counted by the project often cited arguments with family or a friend, aging out of foster care, and financial issues as their primary causes of homelessness.

Transition-age youth “need services that are focused on helping them make a successful transition to adulthood,” said Colette (Coco) Auerswald, a pediatrician and Associate Professor in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health who specializes in adolescent medicine. “Just because you turn 18 doesn’t mean you suddenly don’t depend on your community to help with your transition to adulthood,” Auerswald, whose research focuses on LGBTQ youth, low income youth of color, and immigrant youth, said over the phone. “Most people, even if they didn’t have supportive parents, had some kind of structure to help them make it to adulthood.” And young people experiencing homelessness don’t always make use of services available to adults. “We know that young people need and benefit from supports,” Auerswald said.

Ultimately, YSA staff want to offer comprehensive services to tiny house village residents. The village will be a “communal housing development,” Gentry said in a phone interview. “It’s going to be more of a community than Oakland’s model of Tuff Sheds, where it’s just a bunch of shacks with no life to them, just bland-looking, just no sense of community.” The Tuff Shed program, managed by the City of Oakland, offers transitional housing to people experiencing homelessness.

At the build site, YSA board president Jackson Hardamon said that tiny home residents will share bathrooms, a kitchen, and a communal garden. Solar panels will power the houses. Four resident assistants will live on-site to offer case management services and connect residents with job training opportunities. Gentry said he hopes that someday all the tiny houses will feature murals.

At the construction site, sawdust flew through the air as a volunteer taught a group of teenagers to cut the framework for a wheel well. Each of the tiny houses will be mobile, and the wheel wells frame the tires. That’s important, because the Brush Street location is temporary. “We’re still working on relocating the tiny houses that we have here now to a new site,” Hardamon said, “However, we’re trying to find a new site first.”

YSA members will have to move the structures to a permanent location before residents can move in. There’s still plenty to be done before anyone can move into the tiny homes, from planting the community garden to finding resident assistants for the village.

Already, though, staff were excited by the site’s possibilities. “This is something that’s really close to my heart,” Stackiewicz said. “And if I could help change the lives of any youth in this world, that would make my life better.”

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