Sean McCreary experienced homelessness as a child and teenager. Now he's part of the crew that's about to launch a tiny-house village for young people still in that position. Credit: Pete Rosos

By the time he was 17, Sean McCreary was tired of telling his life story to people with money and power. Over and over again, he’d speak publicly about his experience getting displaced with his family from their South Berkeley home, and the four years he spent couch-hopping afterward, hoping to convince city officials to do more about the housing crisis.

“It had been two years of going to City Council meetings and pouring my heart out,” said McCreary, who first became homeless in sixth grade. He said he felt it was important to tell real estate developers and politicians what he knew, acutely, about the need to build affordable housing and stem gentrification. But it began to feel like a relentless cycle of emotional advocacy and waiting. 

“I was like, I need to start putting things to action,” said McCreary, who’s now 20 and housed in West Berkeley.

He and his friends and colleagues at Youth Spirit Artworks, a Berkeley-based arts and job-training program for homeless and low-income youth, thought: What if we build affordable housing ourselves instead of just asking cities and developers to do it? 

Now, after three years of tireless work, funding pleas, celebrations, and setbacks, their “tiny house village” is nearing completion. Twenty-two young people who need a place to live will likely be able to move into the mural-covered homes on Hegenberger Road in East Oakland in the fall, said YSA Executive Director Sally Hindman. Along with the youth, something like 1,400 volunteers—many from religious congregations, as well as schools and businesses—helped construct the houses, with oversight from general contractor Rolf Bell.

Each tiny house is 8 by 10 feet, and has a lofted bed, a closet, desk and chair, and electricity and heating. The village is still short four of its planned 27 tiny homes because of COVID-19 construction delays, Hindman said. The others are ready, along with two yurts that will serve as a communal kitchen and a living-room-slash-maker-space, and shared bathrooms. This week, volunteer crews, including 150 kids from Temple Beth El’s Camp Kee Tov, are installing painted fences around the parking lot where the tiny homes stand, and beginning to lay the groundwork to run power and water to the structures. 

The village will house youth ages 18-25, for two years each. Residents will go through YSA’s job training program and have access to case managers who will help them work toward personal goals and connect them to city resources. The initial residents will be selected from people already connected with Oakland and Berkeley’s homelessness services, and the hope is to help them find permanent housing before they leave. (Call 211 to get connected with local housing and shelter options.)

“We’re calling it the Empowerment Village because it’s an opportunity for young people to transform their lives, end the cycle of homelessness, and move on to being self-sufficient,” Hindman said.

Local artists were tapped to decorate the tiny houses that are going up in East Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

For McCreary, it’s been powerful to see the project he’s worked on since 2017 come to fruition. “This is our child we were nurturing, and we’re seeing it grow up,” he said.

If the project was a kid who’s ending its adolescence, there were growing pains along the way. A 2018 plan to open the tiny house village at the site of Ohmega Salvage in West Berkeley fell through when the owner decided to sell the land instead. McCreary remembers a contentious community meeting where neighbors of the Berkeley site raised objections to the tiny house project by referencing esoteric municipal codes and planning ordinances about what kinds of structures and activities were allowed in the area, to avoid, McCreary believed, saying outright that they didn’t want homeless kids living there. The neighbors were also upset that they weren’t told about the plan until late in the process. 

With the West Berkeley location out of the picture, YSA rented a site on Brush Street in West Oakland to build a number of the houses. At that point, the organization was aiming for a July 2020 opening date. Hindman said she thinks a couple-month delay isn’t too bad, given that the project is wrapping up during the pandemic.

In May, the Oakland City Council approved Youth Spirit Artworks’s zero-rent, three-year lease for two acres of land at 633 Hegenberger Road. 

The city of Oakland also granted $360,000 to YSA to run the tiny house village. The organization is contracting with the Housing Consortium of the East Bay, which will manage the property and oversee four resident assistants who will live on site. The Housing Consortium of the East Bay also runs Oakland’s COVID-19 trailer park for unhoused people, which is located next to the tiny house village, so it will provide 24-hour security for both, Hindman said. YSA also got a $117,000, 18-month grant from Berkeley for social workers at the village. The money used to pay for building materials came from private philanthropy and an ongoing GoFundMe campaign.

For McCreary, the communal structure of the village—Hindman calls it an “urban kibbutz,” referring to Israel’s agricultural communes—is what sets it apart from other shelters or transitional housing. It’s reminiscent of the self-directed communities of unhoused people that have sprung up around the East Bay in recent years, like Oakland’s The Village or Berkeley’s First They Came for the Homeless, said McCreary.

“When people don’t have resources they need, or don’t know what they need, they pull together a community where they can ask questions,” McCreary said. 

McCreary said he was impressed by the infrastructure and rules the First They Came for the Homeless camp’s members created together. The encampment is located across the street from YSA’s Berkeley location, so McCreary closely observed the way things worked there and made occasional donations to the residents.

The YSA youth have come up with a shared set of behavioral rules and a program model for their tiny house village too, Hindman said. Conflicts that arise will be resolved through a restorative justice process. 

Residents must commit to staying clean and sober, and they can’t live there with children. They also must be “literally homeless” according to the federal government’s definition of an unsheltered person, meaning couch-surfing doesn’t count. The coronavirus crisis has also introduced stricter, temporary rules, like no visitors. While the program provides nightly dinners, during the pandemic they’ll come individually packaged instead of served communally. 

But Hindman said many YSA youth members are eager to move in and would benefit greatly from the stability and support.

“We have youth that have been sleeping under the freeway, in tents, in cars,” she said. Half of the 22 tiny-house residents will come from Oakland and half from Berkeley. Oakland has agreed to prioritize current YSA members, Hindman said. 

There are an estimated 700 “transition-aged” (18-24) homeless youth in Alameda County. Many find themselves suddenly homeless after aging out of the foster care system. (Read a first-person account of youth homelessness from YSA member Justin Jones.)

With the tiny house village, “the fact that it’s going to be specifically and only for youth makes it unique,” said Reginald Gentry, a 24-year-old YSA member who helped build the very first tiny home prototype. 

Seeing the near-final product feels “really empowering,” he said. “It’s spectacular. We had this vision the entire time.”

Some 1,400 volunteers have worked on the tiny house village over the past few years, according to Youth Spirit Artworks. Credit: Pete Rosos

Because YSA is behind the village, the tiny houses are painted in bright colors and, in some cases, covered in striking murals by local artists, most of whom donated their work. Hindman is active in the local Quaker community, and the fence surrounding the site is made up of “prayer and blessing” planks decorated by congregations of different denominations and painted with words of encouragement or social-justice messages.

The youth will create “merch” based on the mural images and sell it, as part of YSA’s entrepreneurship program. 

Both Gentry and McCreary said the tiny house village has not only been a creative and righteous project for them, but also a job. Both young men have moved up the ranks of the positions available through YSA’s job-training program, and each holds a leadership role now. It is not easy to find permanent housing for 22 young, low-income people in Oakland and Berkeley, though, as the program aims to do in just two years.

“There’s nothing we can do about the systemic issues that are so embedded in our country and world,” Hindman said. “There’s a gap between the rich and poor, and none of that changes when we open the tiny house village. But we’re going to go forward with all our passion and experience, and give it a shot.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.