Tiny Home, Massive Impact

Explicating Youth Spirit Artworks’ Tiny Home Initiative

by Didi Miller

With homes scattered at over two-dozen congregations around the Bay, taking up a cumulative 1,040 square feet of prime Bay Area real estate, Youth Spirit Artworks’ affordable housing initiative has already yielded 16 tiny home units, with 10 more underway. YSA’s “100 homes for 100 homeless youth” community campaign, launched in 2017, is working towards getting a bed under, a roof over, and a community around the Bay Area’s youth homeless population. 

Youth Spirit Artworks’ mission is simple: house, support and provide a community for the 1,700 homeless youth of Alameda County. YSA Youth Leader Mary Stackiewicz proclaims that we have to “break the chain where it starts,” and these three aspects are how to go about it. That mission emerged from an exercise between homeless youth, who resolved that this was the most viable and fast-acting means of breaking the cycle of homelessness. “The youth are the leaders in this project; they have been the ones that initiated it, and they have been to more than one hundred meetings this year,” says Sally Hindman, YSA’s Executive Director and close supervisor of the project.

Hindman has been working with the homeless community, especially homeless youth, for upwards of 30 years, and was the co-founder of the East Bay newspaper, Street Spirit. Although originally interested in troubleshooting the energy crisis of the late ‘70s, Sally came to realize that environmental awareness was a post-material luxury only available to a select few. “What became clear to me was that the whole idea of caring about the environment was something that was for the wealthy or privileged to care about, but people who were just trying to get by day-to-day couldn’t even think about something like that.” Although she was torn between her concern for the failing environment and her newfound solidarity with homeless people in the community, in the end, Sally came to prioritize the fundamental struggle of homelessness, “and that was survival.” 

Youth Spirit Artworks was founded in 2007 in order to battle the financial hardships that youth and elderly homeless people were faced with. The project emerged as a response to the Telegraph Avenue Homeless Youth Drop-In Center’s need for a “transition age youth for jobs training programs.” 

Right now, YSA’s tiny homes are in the works. 16 “shells” (finished exteriors and insulation but not yet furnished) have been completed and are now “hibernating” for the winter at various congregations around the Bay Area. The homes were assembled at 211 Bush St. in Oakland, but YSA was paying rent and decided to hibernate their village-in-the-making to save money during the winter months.

Each tiny home is 8’x10’, insulated, electrically wired, windowed and heated. They are built to house one homeless person between the ages of 15 and 25. The village will also include two yurts that will function as a community area and a kitchen, as well as communal restrooms and showers. The City of Oakland has agreed to allot space for the village when it is completed, but the location is yet to be determined.

Beyond the physical infrastructure of the project is the underlying religious motivations. During our meeting, Sally vehemently expressed her belief in Micah 6:8, which reads “What does the Lord require of us but to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord.” Sally explains the fundamentality of this verse in her spiritual journey, and notes, “how do you go to bed at night and be living with Micah 6:8 and not want to deeply respond to doing what we can to create justice?”

The Tiny Home Village has had 800 interfaith volunteers hailing from over 30 congregations in the summer of 2019 alone. These volunteers include Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus, among others. Hindman continues, “Our shared religious responsibility to be in solidarity and accompaniment with our neighbor is really what it’s all about.” 

“The religious community has felt called to be in deep solidarity with [these] young people. The young people are leading; in a way they are like prophets, and we are following them,” she says.

In addition to the Tiny Home Village project (launched in 2016), YSA also launched “100 Homes for 100 Homeless Youth” in 2017. This campaign is a 10-year commitment to produce 100 homes, either using Tiny Homes or other affordable housing initiatives.

An important note about the village is that it is not intended to be an end solution. Residents will be permitted a maximum of three years within the village, or until they have permanent housing. The village is supposed to be a transitional space where youth can learn basic vocational skills with peers in a safe space. Members of The Village will be “fully integrated into Youth Spirit Artworks’ existing job training program” with social services and community development opportunities. The hope is that over the three years of residency, the community will facilitate an evolution for these young people out of homelessness into fiscal responsibility and secure housing. 

In addition to the $210,000 raised by independent donors, the City of Oakland and Berkeley have also subsidized $360,000 towards the project. With each of the proposed 26 homes coming in at $12,500 a piece, the cost of the houses alone is $337,000. Between the cities’ contributions and private donations, the project has raised $570,000, but YSA is still looking to raise an additional $100,000 to cover the costs of the yurts and bathroom facilities.

Although the village still has to furnish 16 homes and build 10 more from scratch, they are  on track for residents to move in as soon as July 2020. There will be 22 soon-to-be-housed youth and four supervisors, and there has been a decision by the youth to construct a guest house, raising the total to 27 houses.

In addition to housing youth, YSA is also working towards making an impact on youth who are in need of employment or community.

On a phone call last week, Reginald “Reggie” Gentry — a current board member and the Assistant Project Manager for YSA — broke down exactly how YSA productively supports underprivileged youth in finding employment: “The higher you get on the progression ladder of the youth program, the more money you make. Aspiring artists get $150 a month [which entails art projects, meeting attendance, and other things that ‘pop up on the fly’].  The next title is apprentice, and they also get paid around $150, but the apprentice leader gets two-hundred-something dollars.” 

The highest ranked position you can achieve within the youth program is a “leader.” There are five to seven leaders, and YSA delegates certain tasks to them. Reggie was the Social Media Leader and was responsible for YSA’s social networking. There are also peer support leaders, street spirit leader and a gallery leader. 

Reggie continues, “After leader, the final [tier] on the ladder is job placement. That’s the goal of these programs. YSA is pretty much an interfaith, non-profit organization that has a transformative youth program which places unemployed youth [into employment]. And in the process of progressing us through the ladder, they’re giving us job, art, and leadership training.” 

When Reggie first started working with YSA in 2016, he was an aspiring artist making $150. He climbed the ladder and graduated from the youth program and is now employed part time by YSA itself as the Assistant Project Manager.

The only problem Reggie expressed with where he is now employment-wise is that his hours with YSA are so limited; “There’s no set schedule for me besides our tiny house village committee meeting which is every Friday morning.” Even though he makes $18 an hour (a high salary for a non-profit), he is only working for a few hours a week, attending meetings and giving presentations at schools about YSA and their mission.

Despite the slim hours, Reggie is optimistic. “I want to stay at YSA; it’s just so perfect for me for so many reasons. It’s close, I love the mission, I love the people who work there.” Reggie hopes to continue studying at Berkeley Community College and working at YSA full time, and he dreams of one day becoming a professional Twitch gaming streamer. 

The community of like-minded, good-hearted people have had a profound impact on Reggie: “Seeing the good Samaritanism and unselfishness of YSA members shown at events and meetings has shown me that it’s not all about you, that you can be just as happy helping someone else be happy than just experiencing yourself be happy.”