Volunteers paint one of the tiny homes that makes up YSA’s Youth Empowerment Village. (Simone Rotman)

The once empty lot at 633 Hegenberger Road has come alive: Fruit trees and flowers spring out of brightly colored planter boxes, expressive murals cover practically every surface, and volunteers come each weekend (rain or shine) to help bring the vision of a village for homeless youth into reality. After more than three years in the making and COVID-19 related delays, the Youth Spirit Artworks Tiny House Youth Empowerment Village will finally open mid-February.

The seeds of the Tiny House Village (THV) idea were planted three years ago. At that time, Sean McCreary was a sophomore in high school and a Leader at Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA), a role with the highest level of responsibility in the YSA program. (Disclaimer: YSA is the publisher of Street Spirit.) McCreary and a group of other YSA youth envisioned building a communal living space to house and empower homeless young people. McCreary has been involved in the process from its very beginning until today. 

“The soul of the tiny house project came from the affordable housing work YSA was already doing,” McCreary said. Before starting the Tiny House project, YSA was advocating for affordable housing and cultivating community through art. They advocated for renters’ rights and rent control at city council meetings, led collaborative mural projects in Berkeley, and functioned as a day shelter for local homeless youth. 

Youth from a local shelter who were spending time at YSA’s day program frequently mentioned that they were unable to find placement in permanent housing because of the lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area, and struggled to earn enough money to pay rent. It was from this challenge that YSA youth leaders began developing the idea of a tiny house village for homeless youth. 

McCreary was initially both excited and skeptical to commit to the tiny house idea because YSA had never done a project of this scale before. “If I was going to be a part of this, I wanted to see it all the way through. But I had to feel secure we had the organizational bandwidth. I was one of the people playing devil’s advocate,” recalls McCreary. He began believing when he saw the first tiny house prototype, built by the contractor Tre Brown, in YSA’s outdoor art lot. 

YSA had originally hoped to build the Empowerment Village in Berkeley to be closer to their studio on Alcatraz Avenue, but faced pushback from the neighboring community. After many months of advocacy and relationship-building with Oakland officials, in 2019, the City of Oakland granted YSA the 633 Hegenberger site where the Tiny House Village is located today. 

A portion of the funding for the Tiny House Village came from in-kind donations on YSA’s GoFundMe page. Even though the fundraiser reached its goal, people are still donating to this day. The rest of the funding for the Empowerment Village came from the cities of Berkeley and Oakland, as well as from members of the interfaith community. Now that the Empowerment Village is nearly complete, you will find beauty in any direction you look: From the vibrant fence murals surrounding the village to the budding fruit trees. YSA’s director Sally Hindman usually sits by the front gate and welcomes the volunteers who come to help build each weekend. Approximately 2,000 volunteers have been involved over the years according to YSA’s website. 

“This is a ball that’s rolling, and it’s going to get bigger.”

The Youth Empowerment Village is an explosion of bright colors and artistic expression. Each mural is unique; some convey direct social messages while others are more abstract. “The art makes it more of a community space,” shares Eli Streiff, the YSA youth leader who helped direct the artistic elements of the village. “Most people see low-income housing as dreary and stale, but this is an active engagement of community and art and being in the world.”

A volunteer paints one of the tiny homes at the Empowerment Village. (Simone Rotman)

Each 8’ x 10’ house features murals on its exterior walls and includes a Murphy bed, small desk and storage space. The village has communal bathrooms and showers, a kitchen yurt, and a yurt for gathering and creating art. 

Most of the mural artists are under the age of 25 and people of color. Around half of the artists had never painted a mural before. “We’re giving young local artists a platform to get exposure and potential gigs, and to be seen and appreciated,” explains Streiff. 

The fence surrounding the village is a combination of planks individually painted by members of the interfaith community and large graffiti murals painted by youth graffiti artists. “We wanted to get people representative of the Bay Area involved: Churches and congregations as well as these young graffiti artists. The real energy and visual landscape of homelessless is graffiti,” shares Streiff, “so we wanted to give these young artists an opportunity to participate. The goal is to encourage people to foster relationships with art and grow it in ways that will make their neighbors smile.”

This commitment to the artistic aesthetic of the Tiny House Village is central to the kind of feeling YSA intends to build when residents start moving in: The Empowerment Village endeavors to be a space where residents can express themselves and create the kind of home they want to live in. 

“Creating community is like creating family,” says Dani Longo, who will be the site manager at the THV. “Not everyone will get along, but we’re going to have the tools to meet challenges head on, resolve them in a communal way, and grow.”

The communal structure of the Empowerment Village will give each member responsibility in maintaining the shared space. Everyone will have chores, like cooking meals, and attending community meetings. Committees will run different aspects of the village such as gardening and cleaning.

Longo believes the garden will play a large role in connecting people. Many of the plants in the garden are edible, such as fruits and veggies. “We’ll bring the food we grew right here into the kitchen and together make dinner and eat it and be proud of it,” she says, “We’re going to learn more peaceful interactions through gardening.”

Residents and staff will emphasize trauma-informed community care—a method of community building that focuses on understanding different coping mechanisms and communication methods of those who may have experienced trauma. The group will work on building empathy and compassionate communication. 

YSA’s Youth Empowerment Village is adorned with murals from local artists—many of them youth of color, ages 16-25. (Simone Rotman)

The THV will function as transitional housing. Residents are allowed to stay in the Empowerment Village for two years, but can move out earlier. The program will be a launching pad for life after living there. 

“The goal is to get the resident folks employed and in permanent housing,” says Jilly de la Torre, YSA’s Tiny House Project Coordinator. “If for some reason our efforts to find them permanent housing don’t work out, they would probably go to another transitional housing program, but we would try to avoid this.” Each resident will work with a case manager to connect to healthcare and an income which will eventually allow them to move into subsidized housing or afford their own place. 

The youth will also work closely with the existing YSA leadership program. Similar to current youth leaders, Empowerment Village residents will fulfill YSA work hours and earn wages accordingly. This work could include giving tours of the village and murals or managing a merchandise store by the gate.

There are also opportunities for residents to connect with the surrounding Oakland community. One group of volunteers is currently securing safe transportation plans for the residents: mobilizing the city to get crosswalk lights fixed, getting discounted clipper cards and bus passes, supplying bikes and teaching bike maintenance workshops. A group of doctors is making plans to create a health clinic at the Empowerment Village to serve the residents and other people who live nearby. And once it is safe to go to gyms, the residents will be able to go to the nearby Planet Fitness to work out.

Even as the construction of the THV in Oakland is nearly complete, it is only YSA’s first project to build homes for homeless youth in the Bay Area. YSA is currently consulting with a team building housing for homeless students at Cal State University in Hayward. YSA is also in the very beginning stages of building a second tiny house village in the East Bay.

“This is a ball that’s rolling,” says McCreary, “and it’s going to get bigger.”

Simone Rotman is an intern at Youth Spirit Artworks.