by Lydia Gans
Anyone who is aware of the lack of affordable housing and cares about the plight of more than one thousand homeless people in Berkeley, can’t help but see the disconnect between their basic needs and the callous way that city officials respond.
The City of Berkeley provides some minimal funding for shelters that offer a few hours a night under a roof with a collection of strangers, toilets, showers and personal care facilities, but most of the support comes from churches and nonprofits.
The City’s funding for storage lockers has been discontinued. Homeless people have to carry their possessions with them everywhere they go. The City Council made this situation even worse by passing new laws on December 1 that severely restrict their belongings to only two square feet of space and prohibit them from having a shopping cart in one place for more than one hour during the day.
Churches and other organizations provide meals and the homeless people have to walk to where food is offered. The City doesn’t provide bus tickets.
As for housing, even if the mayor really leaned on the developers to create more affordable housing, what amounts to “affordable” is totally beyond the means of homeless people. It is obvious that the city neither cares nor is able to provide truly affordable housing for the poor people sleeping on the streets.
There is an alternative: Tiny Houses. And the people can make it happen. People are living in tiny houses in cities all over this country — in some areas, just a few individuals, while other places now have sizable communities. The houses can be easily constructed with a variety of materials, in different styles, and with all kinds of amenities. And they are affordable!
Recently, a coalition of homeless activists and supporters from various Berkeley organizations met at Youth Spirit Artworks to plan a Tiny Houses project.
Sally Hindman, director of YSA, told me how it started. “The meetings were initiated by Mike Lee who started talking about a Tiny House village. He’s a good organizer. He brought up the idea and homeless adults from Liberty City came on board and wanted to be involved and then people from Dorothy Day House and from ACLU and YSA got involved. Homeless youth have been very interested and came right from the beginning.”
“There was a lot of enthusiasm,” and a second meeting was set, she said. I joined about 30 people at the second meeting on February 17 at Youth Spirit Artworks. It was an interesting and productive meeting. (I attended that meeting as a reporter and found myself joining a working group.)
The meeting began with a talk and slide show by Betsy Morris, a city planner and consultant who, in recent years, has become interested in tiny house communities. She showed a set of slides displaying a variety of styles of tiny houses, from a traditional little wooden house with a front porch to a dramatic spaceship, an upside-down cup, and a miniaturize version of a modern sculpture.
Morris described some existing communities, focusing on the concept of community and on issues of governance. Some communities are run by churches or nonprofit organizations.
After her presentation, there was a lively and wide-ranging discussion among what was a very diverse group of participants. There were young people and older people who are homeless temporarily or by choice, as well as housed people who are interested and active in political and social issues.
Different ideas and needs were examined in a discussion of concepts of governance, community, need for privacy and other issues. In her talk, Betsy Morris had expressed a strong preference for self-governing communities, but not everyone agreed.
There was also much discussion and planning around practical issues. Research needs to be carried out on size and space requirements in building codes. These codes can vary from city to city, and regulate everything from minimum size of a dwelling to necessary amenities and utilities. A list needs to be compiled of city properties and of private properties that could be sites for the communities.
Connections with Berkeley City Council members and officials were explored. Committees were set up to carry out this work, hopefully by the next meeting in three weeks. Mike Lee, advocate and organizer of the project, put out the message loud and strong: “There’s been a lot of time, a lot of talk, it’s time for action!”
In the days after the meeting, I talked with several people to get a sense of how they felt about the project. I had signed up to be on a committee with J.P. Nasser to research governance practices in existing tiny house communities. He is a retired computer programmer, and has been politically active for years.
Nasser told me he has been concerned about the housing crisis and has known about and been interested in tiny houses for a long time. Talking about this day’s meeting he said, “I hope it’s the beginning of an upswell of community support to get this tiny homes program under way in Berkeley. And it seems that there is a possibility we can do that.”
Twenty-four-year-old Dana Minton is training for a staff position at Youth Spirit Artworks. “At first,” he said, “I thought it was a pretty bad idea, like tiny houses don’t have proper living space.”
Referring to the first meeting, Minton said, “teams were divided on what research needs to be done, like where are we going to put it, how it gets done, get legal research on this and where are we going from here.” Since then, he has learned more details and had some questions answered, and by the end of this second meeting, he says, “I’m getting pretty optimistic about the project.”
He was particularly concerned about the small size but thinks 220 square feet — apparently the minimum size required — would be OK.
“I don’t think it’s going to be too upsetting for an individual that lives in that little space,” Minton observed. “I have some experience with small spaces. Yeah, I’m kind of on board with what they have to say.”
Hindman had suggested I talk to Zef. When I came to YSA, he was deeply engrossed in painting a picture. I looked over his shoulder. It was a picture of a tree with the top and all its limbs cut short. Around the trunk near the top, Zef had painted a light brown substance that might have been sap. “The tree is crying,” the words came unbidden from my mouth. “Yes,” he said.
Zef had moved here from Seattle two months ago and is currently staying at the YEAH shelter. A talented artist and musician, he hopes to be able to have his own apartment. “I don’t like being homeless,” he said. “I’ve been homeless before. It’s not a sustainable way of living at all…. I was more involved in a life of crime when I was homeless because you really don’t have anything to lose and you’re desperate for everything, when you’re just so hungry, just so thirsty.”
“I like it here in Berkeley,” he said. “Berkeley feels like one of the safest cities in America compared to Seattle. I know that crime in the city goes down if you have a sense of accountability.
:And housing, having something to come back to at the end of the day, gives you a sense of accountability to the community, to friends, and that’s going to be an impact to the safety of the community over all — affecting all ages from children to old folks.”
He has been involved in the tiny houses project since it started. It is “a great idea,” he said. “To have solar energy, sustainable energy, clean water and security is going to be important. YSA has a lot of people that are interested in working on this project — a whole team is interested in seeing this through.”
The third meeting to plan the community of little houses for the homeless takes place March 2. While the city tries to pass more laws against the homeless, the people who care are determined to act.