Volunteers help finish a Tiny House at the YSA studio. (Courtesy of Rolf Bell)

On a sprawling, sun-washed plot of pavement in East Oakland—overlooking bustling Hegenberger Road, a Taco Bell, and the BART shuttle line to the airport—the cherished project of hundreds of Bay Area community members is finally coming to its long-awaited fruition. For the last three years, Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) has been passionately engaged in the process of building a village of small homes for transitional-age youth experiencing housing insecurity in the East Bay. (Disclaimer: Youth Spirit Artworks is the publisher of Street Spirit). Complete with 26 compact dwellings, living room and kitchen spaces, vibrantly painted murals, and lots of greenery, the YSA Tiny House Village is expected to be fully operational by this fall.

Over the last few weekends, the teams working on the Tiny House Village (THV) have seen progress on several different fronts. At the THV site at 633 Hegenberger, dedicated groups of weekend volunteers have begun the process of erecting the posts for the fence that surrounds the property. Throughout the next several weeks at the site, volunteers will be putting foundations in place for the newly-arrived yurts as local summer campers construct the dozens of planter boxes that will adorn the Village. Meanwhile, young people at the YSA studio on Alcatraz Avenue have been busy getting fence planks primed and ready to be painted by the organization’s partners in the interfaith community.

All throughout the fall of last year, the YSA studio was constantly bustling with excited teams of volunteers, who helped to put together the first group of tiny homes. These days, the studio looks a little different. While you can still find a handful of staff in the studio on weekday afternoons, all of YSA’s lively programming is now being held over Zoom, giving youth participants the opportunity to continue to bond, grow, and create art during the unique and unprecedented challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the pressures brought on by the virus slowed down the overall vision for the Tiny House Village—which was initially slated for a July 1st move-in—the project could not be stopped. Small cohorts of devoted volunteers wearing masks and gloves continue to flow into the studio three days a week to help with ongoing house construction, while committees have been working diligently behind the scenes to ensure that permitting and utility installment are still sticking to a timely schedule. 

“They’re not just having housing there, but are making it a growing and caring community where people are taking care of each other and nurturing each other.”

YSA has seen tremendous support for the Tiny House Village from volunteers, donors, congregations and community members from all over the Bay Area. This has felt especially impactful for the young people who’ve been there to see the project through from start to finish. Assistant Project Manager and Board Member Reggie Gentry—who called the Tiny House Village “the best project that YSA has been a part of”—feels moved by the community’s response to the effort, which started as an idea posed by several youth participants in 2017. “It’s heartwarming to see how many people believe in the project,” Gentry explained. “It’ll be this hub for underserved youth. We’re making history with it being the first legal youth tiny house village in the United States.” Having participated in a few builds during the spring, Gentry continued helping the project make progress even in the midst of the pandemic, collecting and organizing donations for the Tiny House interiors and fostering YSA’s online presence through his role as the Social Media Leader. 

Youth prime the planks that will be painted with blessings from local congregations. (Courtesy of Rolf Bell)

The community support that coalesced around the Village project extended to Berkeley City Council officials, who, on June 2nd, voted to approve a $117,000 18-month contract for the Tiny House Village’s case management. The road to procuring needed funding, nevertheless, has been a challenging one. COVID-19 resulted in the delay and cancellation of several City Council meetings, putting further pressure on those representing the voice of YSA, which is often the youth themselves. As Tiny House Leader Jason Wilson described, “the funding has been a tedious task because we’ve gone to multiple City Council meetings to push for a budget. Things kept getting delayed and seemed like they weren’t a priority for a lot of people. We had to keep showing up and pushing for what we needed.”

It seems that the youth’s hard work and consistent showing up for their cause has paid off.  As Youth Spirit Artworks and their supporters look forward to the long-anticipated opening of the full-fledged Village, its young participants voice their hopes for what they imagine the THV will be for its residents: a home, for those who need it most. YSA’s communications and Street Spirit Leader Inti Gonzalez pointed out that the Tiny House Village’s goal extends far beyond providing a place to stay.

With its focus on wrap-around services, ongoing individual case management, and holistic youth well-being, aims to become a strong, interconnected community where residents feel emotionally supported and empowered to pursue their goals. “They’re not just having housing there, but are making it a growing and caring community where people are taking care of each other and nurturing each other,” Gonzalez pointed out. And this community in Oakland will be just the beginning. Over the next decade, Youth Spirit Artworks is determined to stick to its foundational goal of building a hundred tiny homes for a hundred unhoused Bay Area youth.

Jillian de la Torre is the Tiny House Project Coordinator at Youth Spirit Artworks and an aspiring social worker.