Tiny houses empower homeless youth

Located near the Oakland Coliseum, the Tiny House Youth Empowerment Village is an ambitious project spearheaded by Youth Spirit Artworks with the goal to provide homeless young adults a place to build community, learn skills, do art and have a safe place to shelter during COVID-19. (Photos by Daniel Arauz)

A first in the nation, the Tiny House Youth Empowerment Village under construction near the Oakland Coliseum will house homeless youth ages 18-25 in 26 brightly-painted wooden houses on wheels. Only 8-by-10 feet, each little home comes equipped with the basics: a fold-out bed, windows, skylight, storage, heated wooden floors and electricity. Dining facilities, community meeting spaces and bathrooms are communal, interspersed with garden boxes planted with herbs, fruit trees and flowering vines.

Constructed in Habitat for Humanity-style builds by volunteers on land provided by the City of Oakland, the aim for this project run by Youth Spirit Artworks, in partnership with the Housing Consortium of the East Bay, is bold: give homeless young adults a place to build community, learn skills, do art and have a safe place to shelter during COVID-19 for up to two years before they launch into the world.

Sean Ticknor, Executive Director of Big Skills Tiny Homes based in Fairfax, volunteered to build one of four ADA-compliant tiny homes with larger doors to accommodate wheelchairs. During the build, which lasted from September to November, Ticknor trained and offered scholarships to four people who wanted to learn construction skills — two high school graduates and two middle-aged women.

COVID restrictions complicated construction, which was done outside in the corner of a parking lot attached to an old gas station. 

“It’s been a funky, funky year,” Ticknor said, but he managed to work with his crew in masks, maintaining social distance. Now that the “dorm room,” as he calls it, has been delivered to the Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) site, Ticknor continues to build other tiny houses, most recently for a homeowner who was burned out in September’s Bear Fire (part of the North Complex fire in Butte County).

“Our goal is to simultaneously provide housing to those in need while also offering vocational training,” Ticknor said.

“We have gotten awesome support from the community,” said YSA Project Coordinator Jilly de la Torre, 22, who lives in El Cerrito. She juggles day-to-day plans; helps create guidelines for everything from landscaping to pet policies to shared meals; oversees volunteers; and is part of a team that assesses potential residents. She’s part social worker, part strategic planner and full-time logistics maven.

Volunteers are trained on the job by skilled leaders overseen by Construction Manager Rolf Bell, who is also a former regional director for Habitat for Humanity.

The brainchild of community activist Sally Hindman, who founded YSA in 2007 after a stint coordinating a drop-in shelter on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley, the project was originally an art studio and gallery designed to give homeless youth access to art lessons and supplies. That program continues. But in 2016 a group of YSA youth participants came up with the idea of creating the village to provide shelter for the growing number of homeless young adults, some of whom have aged out of foster care. 

Potential residents will be assessed carefully to ensure they will benefit from the comprehensive services and social support provided, says de la Torre.

“We are looking for people who want to be involved in building community, who will participate in weekly meetings and abide by restorative justice principles, as well as share cooking and clean up,” she said.

Despite delays from COVID restrictions, the target opening for the Tiny House Village is Jan. 2021.

To get ready, an army of volunteers (800 and counting) including professionals like Ticknor, are putting the finishing touches on the houses. They contribute time and elbow grease to install flooring, paint murals, build garden boxes and construct and furnish the larger yurts that will house the cooking and community spaces.

Oakland resident Eli Streiff, 23, has experienced housing insecurity himself. Streiff, a college student and muralist, is now an artist leader for YSA, managing the work of about 100 young artists filling the village with murals and painting the outside of every tiny home with vibrant pictures and pop-you-in-the-eye graphics.

“Most kids who tag just want to be acknowledged, to have their art showcased,” Streiff said. “We give them free paint and basic instruction and they take it from there. Many of the graffiti artists are being given the opportunity to do some of their first fully legal, community-based murals.” 

To meet the ambitious completion schedule, more volunteers are needed, says de la Torre, and once the village is open, that need will continue. To donate or volunteer, email her or visit the YSA website to learn more. 

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