people building a house
Volunteers worked to build tiny houses with Youth Spirit Artworks on Sept. 9, 2019. A completed tiny house is in the background. Photo: Tony Hicks.

So many volunteers appeared at the Oakland construction site where Youth Spirit Artworks was building tiny houses for homeless youth Saturday, they ran out of work helmets before noon.

“I need to do some errands; we need supplies,” said Jackson Hardamon, president of the YSA board of directors, to the group’s executive director Sally Hindman. “We’re out of hard hats. Someone is doing a Home Depot run.”

The scene was busy, to be sure. The pounding of hammers and the buzzing of power saws around the lot at 2116 Brush St. made it difficult to hear anything else. But it wasn’t the typical construction site vibe. People were smiling and working in small groups, holding ladders for one another and lifting sheets of plywood in groups. There was even the occasional hug.

More than 120 people gave up a chunk of their Saturday to the second weekend of Youth Spirit Artworks long-awaited project of providing 26 units for homeless and low-income people, 18-25 years old, by July 1, 2020, the village’s scheduled opening date.

Each 8-by-10-foot unit costs around $12,500 to build, and will have a loft bed, a living area, a closet, electricity, a desk and a chair, and a heating system. The village will have a communal kitchen, a communal living space, an art space, and bathrooms. Services like job and peer counseling will be available through YSA, a non-profit arts job training program.

The site is on Brush Street, between 22nd and 21st streets, near West Grand Avenue and Interstate 980. The group hopes to eventually have similar villages in Berkeley, the Richmond area, and another in Oakland.

“One hundred homes for 100 youths,” said Rolf Bell, the project’s construction manager and a general contractor based in Berkeley, who has worked on similar projects for Habitat for Humanity. “If we’re lucky, we’ll have all 100 built by the end of 2022. We’re creating a model that’s not being done anywhere in the world for vulnerable youth.”

Volunteers measure and saw at Youth Spirit Artwork’s project to build tiny houses. Photo: Tony Hicks
Volunteers measure and saw at Youth Spirit Artwork’s project to build tiny houses. Photo: Tony Hicks
builders with ladder
Volunteers help out building a tiny house. Photo: Tony Hicks
YSA volunteers working on tiny houses on Sept. 7, 2019. Photo: Tony Hicks
volunteers building a tiny home
Jackson Hardamon, president of the board of YSA, and a volunteer help build a tiny home on Sept. 7, 2019

The project’s capital budget is $760,000, and its annual operating budget will be $360,000, which the city of Oakland has already committed to providing, Hindman said. There’s another $120,000 budgeted for services once the village is up and running.

Two units were built last spring and the youth group Piedmont Service Crew is building another. Eleven more will be constructed by YSA and its volunteers next spring. There will also be a smaller “guest house” at the site, which was built by the nonprofit in 2017 and is currently at its South Berkeley headquarters. There will also be YSA resident assistants living there.

“It’s been amazing,” said Hindman, who founded YSA in 2007. “It’s really a community saying ‘We’re not going to let our people sleep outside in tents.’ This was initiated by young people, sleeping in the youth shelter. These are the first youth tiny houses in the United States.”

Perhaps it’s the first such development designated just for youth, but the tiny house concept has popped up all over the country in response to homelessness. Within the past few years, tiny housing developments have appeared in Portland, Seattle, Nashville, Dallas, Austin, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and others.

The land for the Oakland project is being leased to the nonprofit by someone who wishes to remain anonymous. “The organization leasing this to us is doing us a huge favor,” Hindman said.

The turnout Saturday came mostly from YSA and volunteers from more than 30 East Bay faith-based groups like Congregation Beth El, First Congregational Church, Kehilla Synagogue, Temple Beth Israel, All Souls Episcopal Church, and others.

people in hard hats sitting around eating lunch
The volunteers for Youth Spirit Artworks take a lunch break. Photo: Tony Hicks

Ellie Goldstein is a retired high school librarian who lives in Berkeley. She’s been helping feed the homeless through Congregation Beth El for more than 30 years. She said she saw the difficulties of homeless students firsthand.

“There were kids for whom just getting to school in the morning was a heroic event,” she said, holding a hammer. “There will be young people here who can come home to a place where their stuff will be at the end of the day, a place where they can feel like they are home.”

Homeless is especially problematic in the Bay Area, which has the third-largest homeless population (28,200) in the country, behind only New York City and Los Angeles, according to a report issued in April by the Bay Area Economic Institute. The Bay Area trails only Los Angeles (75%) for highest percentage of homeless people without shelter, at 67%. Only 5% of New York City’s homeless have no shelter, according to the study.

According to Investopedia in July, the Bay Area had three of the seven most expensive housing markets in the United States: San Francisco at No. 2, Oakland at No. 6, and San Jose at No. 7.

So, as YSA’s co-treasurer John Shannon said, while the economy might be doing well overall, the Bay Area can be a tough place to live for those who aren’t well-off.

“There’s so much pain and suffering,” he said. “It’s like structured problems you can’t get out of. The rising tide is not lifting all ships. People are being left behind and drowning.”

The idea of a tiny home village started locally in 2016 among young people in YSA’s job program. The concept of transitional housing was key for them, Hindman said, and was identified by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute as something the area needs.

“We started meeting with them to see what they were passionate about,” Hindman said. “They said ‘We need housing.’ They chose to work on a tiny house village. They wanted to be in a program up to three years and get training to be self-sufficient. They wanted to be in their own houses. They were tired of sleeping on the floor.”

Members of YSA and architecture students from the University of San Francisco have helped design the project. Hindman said the group still needs more outside help, including from the city of Berkeley, which she hopes will help fund its completion from Measure P funding, which Berkeley voters approved in 2018. It directs property transfer tax money to pay for navigation centers, mental health support, rehousing and other services for homeless people.

“Oakland has really gone out on a limb for us,” Hindman said. “Oakland has been inspired by the leadership of the youth. We need that same leadership from Berkeley.”

Specifically, YSA would like Berkeley to provide $100,000 annually to go for case management and jobs training. While the tiny village is in Oakland, the services would be provided at YSA in Berkeley, said Hindman.

Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman, confirmed that Berkeleyhasn’t approved any funding yet for the project but it will be examined in November during the budget update.

The nonprofit’s first crack at building an East Bay tiny village was initially planned in Berkeley but fell through in spring of 2018. YSA planned to rent a space on San Pablo Avenue for a 25-home project, but the owner decided to sell the land instead. The group worked on the project for about two years and already had designs and construction crews assembled.

More than a year later, those teams have reassembled, and then some. There are three more Saturdays of work left of building the current 12-unit phase.

“People can walk up and volunteer,” Hindman said. “There are so many people that feel powerless to solve the problem of housing. People say ‘I feel like I have to do something.’ I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s people coming together to solve a problem.

“This is an unstoppable project,” she continued. “The spirit, goodness and compassion that makes this project possible is unstoppable.”

Volunteers with Youth Spirit Artworks have started a GoFundMe page to help fund its tiny House Villages Program. As of this morning, 157 donors contributed $26,698 to the cause.

The next days to volunteer are Sept. 21, 28 and Oct. 5,  from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Click here to learn more about the project.

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Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...