Your Family magazine - Spring 2015

Starter homes for the homeless

Occupy Madison brings village of Tiny Houses to life

By Samantha Christian

Unified Newspaper Group

Without government assistance, a local nonprofit is building a village of tiny houses with the help of those who intend to live there: the homeless.

Occupy Madison, Inc. recently opened its Tiny Houses Village shortly before Thanksgiving in 2014. Four people currently live in three insulated houses, which measure just 14 feet by 7 feet, and they don’t have to pay a dime.

The nonprofit hopes the number of rent-free houses will grow to nine, but more funds are needed. Each tiny house costs approximately $3,000-$3,500 for materials. All labor is provided by volunteers and the people who want to live in them.

The City of Madison gave approval in stages for the village, which is located at 304 N. Third St. in the Emerson East neighborhood, since this type of housing model is so new and unusual.

Board vice president Luca Clemente has seen the evolution of the group, from activists to the homeless, since he got involved with Occupy Madison in October 2011, which started in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movements.

“At that time, it was mostly a collection of political activists, but we ended up forming a camp,” he said. “And in Madison, like elsewhere, the resources and the safety and the camaraderie that the camp provided attracted lots of people from the streets and people who had nowhere else to go.”

In Dane County, there is nowhere legal for the homeless to sleep outside at night, he said, so when the group was told to move from one place to another it decided to find private land to start its own village.

Occupy Madison, Inc. became a nonprofit in December 2012, and in the ensuing months it started planning and fundraising for the village.

In June 2013, it rented a warehouse to begin construction on the tiny houses for the next year, which needed to fit on trailers with no foundation so they could be easily moved.

Clemente explained that there is no plumbing in the houses, but the village has two bathrooms and another is handicapped-accessible. Each house also has access to power and contains an electrical wall-mounted heater and kitchenette. Some are even being built with solar panels.

Because the effort is entirely volunteer-run and no one is paid, they try to use reclaimed and recycled building materials as much as possible, as well as donated doors.

“We just want to show that it can be done,” Clemente said.

A fence defines the village area, which will also have a community garden and community room in the workshop. That room will be a shared space for the village for meetings, social events, laundry and kitchen facilities.

All board members have equal say, regardless of titles, Clemente said, and all decisions are democratic. Three of the four people living in the tiny houses are also members of the board so they can have an active voice in the decisions made at the village.

“We don’t give houses to homeless people, we invite the homeless to participate in the building of their own house,” he said, adding that they can also pick the color of paint and choose what the interior design should look like. “I think that really attaches people to the project more than if we just gave it to them.”

To qualify for living in a rent-free tiny house, applicants must volunteer 500 hours at the village (each house takes approximately three months to build), abide by all village rules and follow the code of conduct. They also need to do routine work, such as shoveling, lawn mowing and cleaning, to maintain the community or in a way that helps the group in general while living there. If they meet those terms, they can stay as long as they want.

Clemente said some people in the neighborhood brought up valid concerns that the village could draw violent criminals or people with horrible addictions or antisocial behavior. However, he said people who have enough stability to get through the project and stay active in the village generally do not have those kinds of problems.

“When you spend 500 hours working very closely with other people and coming to meetings … that process really does let you know, we all learn a lot about each other,” he said. “By that time we have a good idea of what their character is like and it acts as sort of a protection, as well.”

Obviously, no one is expected to be perfect, but Clemente said they are looking for a basic level of respect and responsibility in the people who volunteer and want a house.

Occupy Madison, Inc. is working toward phase 2, to add six more houses so that approximately 12 people total can reside in the village. The nonprofit has about 40 active members, with hundreds of volunteers who help when they can.

Since winter is a very difficult time for the homeless to get around, Clemente said, the group only has four people working toward their hours right now. He expects that number to increase once it gets warmer.

“The idea is, when you’re homeless in Dane County, you’re always being shuffled from one place to another. You can never really get comfortable because you’re always told you can’t stay here,” he said. “One of the things we didn’t want to do was have people build their tiny houses and get into it, and then after a year or so we tell them you have to move again.”

As people living there start to find better jobs and want to upgrade to a bigger place or rent an apartment, then they can move on.

“But that’s their choice,” Clemente said.

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Your Family – cover photo by Samantha Christian