The group is part of a new wave of homeless advocacy inspired by the COVID pandemic.
When the COVID pandemic hit the Bay Area, many outreach services for unhoused people ground to a halt. As shelters cut capacity and organizations that once offered regular meals closed their doors, many living on the streets were left with devastating holes in the support networks they had built for themselves in the pre-pandemic world. However, this bleak landscape inspired a new wave of grassroots efforts to feed and house the houseless. Advocacy groups like the East Oakland Collective more than doubled the amount of food and resources they distributed, and individual Bay Area residents sprang to action to help fill the gaps. Artists Building Communities was born of this moment: a group of out-of-work artists who came together to build tiny homes for people living curbside.
The collective got its start at the Vulcan Lofts in Fruitvale, a sprawling community of working class artists—from jugglers and stunt doubles to DJs and circus performers—who live in a series of buildings that were converted from a former steel foundry into housing in the 1980s.“We were all a lot of stagnant production people here, that’s how I felt,” said Ben James, the group’s build director. “Nothing to do, nothing to build…I did all the home improvements on my room I wanted to do. Seriously, I did so many things in my house, it was ridiculous,” he joked.
That sense of listlessness, coupled with concern for their unsheltered neighbors, inspired the group to try to meet the need they saw growing in their community. By the following spring, Artists Building Communities (ABC) had coalesced into a formal group of ten core members and built eight tiny homes for unhoused encampment residents in Oakland and Berkeley. They have developed a large volunteer network of over 160 people—a group that continues to grow. They work to give volunteers the skills to continue building homes beyond individual build days.
They also do advocacy work in a few encampment communities, bringing food, helping residents schedule doctor’s appointments, and providing other assistance as needed. The group also helped produce an album of music by the unhoused artists they have met, which they recorded as part of a recent fundraiser to bring in money for new tiny homes.
“Lots of people want to help,” said Annmarie Bustamante, director of outreach for ABC. “Especially now, there are really visible areas of need across Oakland and the Bay Area.”
“It’s like the house with the three little pigs. One just has more staying power”
A number of ABC’s members have experience with homelessness themselves. After his studio apartment in Eureka burned down, Ben James lived out of his car, at friend’s houses, and at the beach for a year. “My truck is not too bad, but I could feel it. I know how easy it is to go from ‘everything’s fine’ to ‘damn, I’m living out of my car’,” he says. He started frequenting music festivals as a way to find work and a place to stay, as well as a creative community. This is what kickstarted his career in stage production, and taught him many of the skills he is currently using with ABC. The group hopes to utilize their ties to art and music festivals, mobilizing friends in their community to get out and put their skills to use.
Dan Cordie, director of marketing for ABC, has also had a taste of houselessness. After dealing with depression and substance abuse he found himself sleeping outside for the better part of a year. “Following that, I had a bit of drive to help out the unhoused in some ways, whatever way that might be,” he says.
Kellie Castillo was among the first people to receive an ABC home. During the year leading up to the pandemic, she had been staying with a friend while she worked and saved money so she could afford a place of her own. Castillo has been homeless for about ten years, but by March, she was ready to start looking for a place. That’s when COVID hit.
“I didn’t want her to have to say, ‘Okay, it’s time to go’,” Castillo said of the friend who took her in. “I ended up using the money [I saved] to move out.” She moved to the Wood Street encampment with her wire-haired terrier, Littles, because she didn’t yet have a place to go.
Castillo tried to continue working, but both of her jobs completely stopped. She moved into her vehicle and lived off the money she had saved. Some time later, a friend from the encampment referred her to ABC. This is how the group decides who to build homes for: current tenants nominate potential new tenants. Once Castillo was nominated, they got to work on her tiny home.
Though she wasn’t involved with the build process, Castillo would often come by to check on the progress of her house. At first she was a little skeptical, noting that lots of people with good intentions offer help but then struggle to manifest their plans. In the end, though, ABC far exceeded her expectations.
“When they said they were done, and I came in and put my bed in here and Littles climbed in with me, it felt really good,” Castillo remembers. “It did, it felt really good. It was just comfortable. You can close the door. It felt familiar, safe. It was really a godsend. I will never forget.”
Castillo has lived in her tiny home since November. She added a loft so that friends who need a place to crash can come stay with her. She also has plans to paint the outside of the home with a camouflage pattern, and to perhaps add a screen door and a bathroom. She says the home’s simple design allows residents to tailor the space to their specific needs. The main draw, she says, is the stability.
“It’s like the house with the three little pigs. One just has more staying power,” she says. “This one feels more like a home. When the wind comes, my tent was just going to blow away, no matter how well you put it up, or how many strings you tie to the ground, or how many bricks you put on it.”
Castillo says this stability attracts others as well. She has found that people have gravitated toward her spot in the encampment since her tiny home—and a couple of houses for her neighbors—have been built.
“It somehow becomes a magnet,” Castillo reflects. “It’s like a kingdom to me,” she says of her home. “It’s like, ‘That belongs to Kellie and I’m her’ … I think that’s great.”
Each house measures about 10 feet by 12 feet—14 feet including the porch—and costs about $3,000 to build. By now the group has their blueprint down to a science. It’s a replicable method that requires simple carpentry, creates minimal waste, and builds homes that are up to code. They each have windows which act as fire escapes as well as a deadbolt, and everything is insulated. ABC has posted the blueprints online, and their hope is that their open source model will allow others to replicate their project.
ABC is not the first group to build emergency tiny homes in Oakland. The group joins a long tradition of building guerrilla housing—that is, un-sanctioned by the city—for people without shelter. Groups like The Village in Oakland have been building tiny homes in encampments for years. The challenge they face is often eviction by city officials. When an encampment is closed, the homes are often demolished unless residents or advocates can find a way to transport them elsewhere.
This fate could soon befall ABC’s tiny homes as well. In fact, the plot of land where Kellie lives, which is owned by Caltrans, is currently under threat of eviction. Signs have appeared warning people to keep out, and the state agency is in the process of working with the City of Oakland to finish building a $1.2 million “safe parking” lot on a parcel of adjacent city-owned land. The new lot will accommodate up to 50 RVs for people who currently live on Caltrans land—a project that will not accommodate everyone who needs housing on that part of Wood Street. Cheryl Chambers, Caltrans Deputy District Director for External Affairs, told Street Spirit that residents of the parcel between 18th Street and West Grand—where Kellie lives—are scheduled for eviction as soon as the RV lot is completed, which may be as early as the first weeks of July.
When eviction day comes, Kellie plans to move her tiny home to a friend’s property in Nevada City where she will be able to stay as she figures out next steps. Work has picked back up, and between her two jobs working for a temp agency and cleaning houses, she labors long hours each day. Ultimately, her goal is still to move into an apartment or a house—something genuinely stable and secure. Though she loves her tiny home, she recognizes that the sense of security it provides can only go so far in the unpredictable setting of encampment life.
“You’re often exposed to things that most people aren’t exposed to,” she says. “You never know what stuff is going to be here when you get back. Be it [an eviction by Caltrans] or other people passing through who happen to pick things up.”
This constant cycle of loss and displacement makes it difficult for people like Kellie to maintain steady employment, and ultimately to exit homelessness.
“You want to move forward, you don’t want to stay in one place. And that’s really what occurs, you stay in one place,” she says. “Because you can only do so much. And it takes so much effort to get it all back [on track] every time.”
ABC’s ultimate goal is to lease city-owned land and build a community of tiny homes that would be self-governed by residents. They are currently working on raising $30,000 to build seven new homes. If they could secure land so they knew the homes would be safe from eviction, the organizers with ABC are hopeful that such communities could play a significant role in ending the homelessness crisis.
For now, Kellie is happy to have her one home, and encourages the public to donate to ABC. “If I don’t have a home, an actual place where I can function completely, I feel completely lost.”
Alastair Boone is the Editor in Chief of Street Spirit.