It’s been a long road for the Youth Spirit Artworks project, which could house 22 homeless youth starting in the fall.
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.
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