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The co-op village offers rent-free, 7-foot-by-14-foot homes to people who have been homeless, so long as they put in sweat equity — including working with Occupy Madison, sharing chores such as taking out trash and cleaning shared bathrooms, and maintaining their own homes. The village includes gardens, a wood shop, a store to sell wood shop wares, communal bathrooms and a makeshift kitchen. Organizations from around the Midwest and coastal states have toured the Occupy Madison Village to use it as a template for providing housing for people who are homeless. Everyone that helps run the Occupy Madison village co-op is a volunteer and we need help. There are many volunteer positions that can be done once or on a regular basis. Some of the types of roles you can play are: •General Member: Help make solution-based decisions on how OMI (Occupy Madison Inc) is organized. •Board Member: Legal and financial interface of OMI •OM Build: Woodworking projects to sell in the store. Carpentry-building tiny houses •OM Fundraising: Help write grants, decide which grants are applicable to our goals, help organize fundraisers •OM Grow: Everything organic: garden beds, future greenhouse, selling/giving produce, bees, landscaping •OM Village Store: help organize and staff the store, inventory taking and pricing
There is room for more tiny homes, but per an agreement with the city, we currently can’t add four more residents until we add a kitchen, additional bathrooms and a community room. That’s likely to cost somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000.
Tiny houses in Madison, Wis., offer affordable, cozy alternative to homelessness
MADISON, WIS. – On his day off, Gene Cox rose with the sun, pulled a hood over his gray hair and started a pot of coffee.
Deep sleep was still new to him. His first night here, in late February, Cox awoke every two hours, looked around and realized that he was no longer living in his van — which, in cold months, required routinely waking to turn the key and blast the heat.
Cox now has a house. A tiny one. But all 98 square feet are his.
“Every day I try to find something to be grateful for,” he said, “but this is just beyond words.”
Cox, 41, and his three neighbors, who had once huddled in trucks and tents, recently moved into a row of brightly colored tiny houses that they helped build. With the help of a crowdfunding campaign, the nonprofit Occupy Madison founded this “village,” as they call it, turning the microhousing trend into an inexpensive way to shelter people struggling with homelessness. The houses, equipped with super-efficient electric heaters, cost just $4,000 apiece.
The village has inspired international curiosity and could become a template for similar projects. Activists, nonprofits and students from hundreds of cities — including Rochester, Duluth and St. Cloud — have e-mailed, called and visited. One guy recently stopped by from Australia. Google is interested.
“The questions range anywhere from, ‘How do we do this here?’ to ‘How do you heat them?’ ” said Bruce Wallbaum, the treasurer of Occupy Madison, which formed after Occupy Wall Street’s protests began in 2011. “Then, of course, we get lots of people from all over the country looking for houses, which is really sad.”
Wallbaum parked his white pickup truck at the village workshop, unloading bags of McDonald’s food and materials from Menards.
“Are these cute or what?” he asked, holding up a pair of windows.
The shop, once home to Sanchez Motors, sits beside the tiny houses and acts as the village hub: part workshop, greenhouse and dining room. Residents share the building’s three bathrooms and makeshift kitchen, with little more than a microwave. On a recent afternoon, volunteers constructed the frame of a chicken coop — designed to look like an even tinier tiny house — that they’ll auction off at a spring fundraiser.
To be eligible to live here, a “steward” must volunteer at least 500 hours, finishing the tiny houses, making crafts to sell or fixing up the shop itself. They pay no rent.
“Shelter is a need,” said Wallbaum, wearing both reading and safety glasses atop his head. “But what is really going to make it a sustainable village is meaningful occupation, things that people get to plug into, that give their lives meaning.”
A nail gun punctuated the blues playing on the radio as Allen Barkoff, a volunteer, showed a student around.
“It was a total disaster before we got here last April,” he said, pointing to the roof that they replaced, the bathrooms that they redid and the electrical outlets that they rewired. Outside, he outlined in the cold air where the group plans to expand, adding a kitchen and community room. Until that $80,000 addition is done, an agreement with the city limits the village to three tiny houses. The second phase calls for six more, which might require more bathrooms.
“They hold one or two people,” Barkoff said. “Two people if they know one another really well.”
‘Home sweet home’
In the evenings, Betty Ybarra and Chris Derek light candles in the little green house they’ve lived in since 2013, when it was parked on a street. They found its solar porch light free online. They made the window boxes from a discarded headboard. The shutters are old closet doors, cut into four parts.
Ybarra, 49, painted the small purple sign hanging on the wall: “Home sweet home.”
Struggling in an abusive relationship, “I found myself to be displaced at times,” Ybarra said. Sherecalls sad times — being evicted, assaulted, imprisoned — but often ends with a swift shake of her head: “Once you put me down … I’m coming back up.”
She met Derek, 56, more than two years ago, as Occupy Madison’s protests against economic inequality morphed into a homeless encampment that shuttled between government properties and park campsites. At Token Creek Park, the couple’s tent flooded, “like a water bed that broke,” Ybarra said. They struggled to hold electrical cords above water. “I was afraid to go to sleep,” Derek said.
Sitting around the fire, the activists and homeless folks “came up with all kinds of crazy ideas,” Wallbaum said, a few inspired by ice fishing shanties on the four lakes that carve up this city. Houses on wheels that weigh less than 3,000 pounds didn’t need to be licensed, they learned, and could be parked on the street for two days at a time.
Then they found the old auto shop, on the edge of a neighborhood but also near a former cheese warehouse. They bought it for $110,000.
Some neighbors objected, circulating a petition against the project. “There was a lot of rhetoric versus reality — assumptions that this was just going to be packed with alcoholics,” said Larry Palm, a Madison city alderman whose 12th district includes the village.
During months of meetings, neighbors and city staff also raised legitimate concerns about noise, numbers and safety standards. He reminded fellow elected officials that the nonprofit was seeking no city money.
“They’re going to house 20 people without taxpayer subsidies,” he said. “Give them some credit.”
In May, the City Council unanimously approved Occupy Madison’s request to rezone the land. Since the stewards moved in, the first few in November, Palm has heard no complaints. He cheers the village’s model of involving future occupants in the process of building their houses.
“We’re not talking about transitional housing,” he said. “They are home. That’s really the dignity of the whole thing.”
The tiny house villages that have sprouted in cities across the country — including the Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash., a $3 million development — abide by the “Housing First” strategy: While the reasons for homelessness are complex, the theory goes, the first step should be to provide people with housing.
In St. Cloud, services are “still very much under the idea that you must prove yourself first, and then you might get on the list for possible housing,” said Tina Lamberts, a musician and homeless advocate who is pushing for tiny homes in the central Minnesota city.
“They don’t need another program or another coat,” she said. “They need a place to live.”
Anything that reduces the cost of housing is worth pursuing, said Steve Berg of the National Alliance to End Homlessness, later adding, “as long as you avoid some of the pitfalls.”
Among them: “Segregating people who were homeless in a part of a community where they’re cut off from the chance to get jobs and medical care,” said Berg, vice president for programs and policy.
Ghetto or utopia?
People tend to view Madison’s village either as a ghetto or a utopia, Wallbaum said. The reality is messier.
In theory, stewards can stay forever, but one of the first to move into a tiny house — a man involved with the group for many months — is gone. After he kept “drinking and getting out of control,” as another steward put it, the board asked him to leave.
It took some 50 hours of discussion to settle on that “very difficult decision,” Wallbaum said. True to its Occupy roots, the group celebrates consensus and stewards joke about meetings that span days. “We are also a group that raged against all kinds of other organizations that ban people and throw people out,” he said. The conflict left the group exhausted.
Students taking Introduction to Construction at LaFollette High School used to build a shed. But then teacher Todd Faulhaber heard about the tiny house village.
“As soon as I saw them, I thought, yeah, we can totally do this,” said Faulhaber, a technology and engineering teacher.
While the construction is similar, it’s more like a “true house,” he said. So students learn more about electricity, insulation and windows. “It’s a much truer project,” he said. “The door is a real door.”
On a recent morning, students Rebecca Watring, 16, and Anthony Feller, 17, grabbed a few 2-by-4s for the front of the structure. “Let’s cut a scrap piece,” Feller suggested after staring at the miter saw. He ran one through, cutting at a diagonal. He measured. Then he gave Watring a thumbs up.
Working on a house “makes us be more precise,” Watring said later, “because we know people will actually be living in this.”
Last semester, before hitching up the completed house to a trailer, the students wrote letters to the future occupant and slipped them inside. “Hi my name is Patrick and I helped build your tiny home,” one note read. “Everyone in my class knew that we could change a life.”
For Cox, having a tiny house means his 8-year-old son, Evan, can stay overnight — on a retractable bed Cox is building for his visits. “This is just the most fantastic …” he said, choking up as he gestured to the place where he will put it. “I can’t even. I’m starting to get emotional.”
A few years ago, Cox’s car broke down. For good. To get to work, he bought a van, then decided to sleep in it, rather than paying rent. “I chose the van over a place to live,” he said. “I figured, it can double for a while until I get it paid off.”
He showered at truck stops before work, doing information technology at a bank. He foraged for food, making flour out of thistle and salads out of dandelions.
This spring, he will plant herbs in his window box. Basil, oregano, parsley. Serving in the Navy, he spent time in Italy.
Cox appreciates being in a neighborhood, knowing that other tiny house developments, like the one in Olympia, Wash., sit in industrial areas. During meetings last year, he was struck by neighbors believing homeless people are sexual predators, drug users and alcoholics. Cox doesn’t drink or do drugs.
“But me being egalitarian, I wouldn’t mind if there was an alcoholic that lived next door to me,” he said. “And we can create that environment to change that behavior.”
He and other volunteers stopped by the shop on a Tuesday evening and learned their task: Replacing the work bench with one that’s lower and, to encourage conversation, circular. They started and stopped and searched online for tutorials.
“I’ve got a joke for you,” Cox announced. “How many occupiers does it take to cut a circle?” They laughed.
Rob Bloch took hold of the saw and, leaning close, slowly followed the curve along the plywood. Every few inches, he blew away dust. As he approached the edge, Wallbaum and Derek silently stepped closer. The saw passed through. The plywood dropped into Wallbaum and Derek’s outstretched hands.
“Nice!” Wallbaum exclaimed, grabbing Bloch’s shoulder.
Hello, I’m Brendan. I’m a rising Gallatin senior studying design and sociology. I am on a journey across the U.S. in an old beat-up Jeep with my fabulous partner, sound tech, cinematographer, salad-maker, tent-pitcher, etc. etc. Luna. We are searching for Tiny Houses.
The first Tiny House parked on the OM Village, Madison WI main street.
My research project was proposed as an exploration of the potential of Tiny Houses, specifically Tiny House communities in the United States. I will be filming, conducting interviews, documenting, and hopefully chatting around campfires with some Tiny House people to see what wisdom this architectural trend and its people can bestow. By way of context, although definitions are loose, a Tiny House is a house that is somewhere in the range of 100 to 400 square feet and is often built on a trailer to avoid building codes and zoning laws associated with traditional foundation-based construction. Often homemade, some of the first of these houses were touted as a response to the mortgage crisis; others are the manifestation of dreams to live a more eco-friendly, off-the-grid, downsized, and free life. Some Tiny Houses are mobile and some are not, but many of them have made their way onto the internet where they have become a shareable phenomenon… So much so that Portlandia thought they were worth a spoof that can be seen here ~~ https://youtu.be/16QAXxpM2qE
Luna and I recently visited our first Tiny Houses in OM Village, Madison WI
“It takes a community to build a village”
The O and M stand for Occupy Madison. The concept of the community was developed in the aftermath of Occupy Wall Street as a response to the predicament of people who had participated, but as the camps came down, had no where else to go. We spoke to Luca Clemente, OM Village vice president “not that that means anything here” he said laughing, about what OM Village really is. He regaled us with stories of wrestling bureaucratic beasts named ‘zoning laws’ and ‘NGO status approval,’ the chaos of acquiring the old septic car garage which was unrecognizable as the building we were sitting in, and the process of ‘beautification’ to make the village amenable to the neighbors. In the adjacent yard behind a new wooden fence sat four beautiful Tiny Houses, painted different colors and with very distinct personalities. Three are lived in and one is acting as a communal kitchen. The way it worked was that people could volunteer with the group and after an allotted number of hours they earned a house. In practice homeless people with strong ties to greater Madison community are empowered and helped to build a house of their own while joining and strengthening the Village.
That evening we sat down with Luca and about eight other residents and volunteers to enjoy a community potluck. The conversation wandered from politics to Kombucha brewing to the new honey bees on the roof to “please pass the mashed potatoes.” Much later I realized that about sixty percent of the people at that dinner were technically homeless, which struck me because–other than through specific volunteer relationships or chance encounters in Washington Square Park–I had rarely had such genial and intimate interactions with people who were, or once had been, without a place to lay their head at night. It was a humbling experience, but also filled both Luna and myself with gratitude for their hospitality and the work OM Village was doing. There was a recognized understanding that an apartment building or a shelter might have gotten more people off the streets faster. But after spending time in OM Village, touring the houses, and talking with their proud owners (and builders!) about the herb garden growing off their windowsill or the birdhouse they had built for the store, the not easily quantifiable–but no less valuable–worth of the OM design was palpable in the air, like the buzzing of happy bees.
I’m currently sitting in a cafe outside of Rapid City, SD with my nose pointing Westward. I look forward to visiting and learning from the many more villages and Tiny Houses on the road ahead.
Offer accepted for tiny house village location
Business owner already on property considers buying land himself
January 15, 2014 4:21 PM Dannika Lewis Posted: January 15, 2014 4:21 PM Updated: December 28, 2019 4:52 AM by Dannika Lewis
Sanchez Motors, possible site of Village of Tiny Homes Offer accepted for tiny house village location
MADISON, Wis. — After 36 years living in the same house off of East Johnson Street, Linda and Ben Brown are used to change in their neighborhood.
Yet, they can’t quite wrap their minds around the village of tiny houses that could be built across the street this summer.
“I just don’t like the idea of having one clustered village and saying, now we’ve solved the problem,” Linda said.
Brenda Konkel, a leader with Occupy Madison, Inc., and homeless advocate, said the group’s offer for the property at 2050 E. Johnson St. was accepted earlier this month. Occupy Madison plans to pay the $110,000 through donations and partial bank loans, pending approval.
Occupy Madison started construction on the 96-square-foot homes last year with the goal of building a village for the homeless.
Konkel said Occupy Madison plans to fit 11 tiny houses on the land where Sanchez Motors now stands. She said the property would have to be rezoned, and the group is doing an environmental study to make sure the old gas station site is a safe place to live.
Sanchez Alatorre has rented the building where he runs his auto shop for years. He said he’s not opposed to the idea of tiny houses for the homeless, but he isn’t sure the site of his business is the best place for a village.
Alatorre said neighbors have already come in with concerns about the plan.
“They don’t know where they’re coming from. You don’t know the background of the people, and they don’t know if there are going to be any problems in the future,” Alatorre said.
Alatorre said he’s considering putting in his own bid to purchase the property, but he has not submitted an offer yet.
Konkel said Occupy Madison plans to keep the building intact and use it as a shop for constructing more tiny houses.
The Browns are still skeptical about the idea, waiting for some clarification on how tiny houses will fit into their community and how those moving will make do.
“How are they going to, how are people, how is the city, whoever is going to be working on this going to make sure that people who are living in this village get all of the things they need?” Linda asked.
A meeting will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation on East Johnson Street to discuss the tiny house village. It is open to the public for anyone wanting more information on the project.
Tiny house village built by and for the homeless opens in Wisconsin
Occupy Madison has been working alongside people experiencing homelessness since they formed in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. The group had a large encampment in Madison, which like many other Occupy camps across the country attracted people with nowhere else to go — including the homeless.
“We had our general assembly meetings and over time more and more of the people there on site were not political activists, but homeless people,” Clemente said.
In the camp, he said, homeless people began forming networks to support each other. They experienced a type of security not possible without a place to store their belongings in order to interview for jobs or access other services, and sleep safely at night.
When Madison authorities eventually closed the camp in spring, 2012, the homeless Occupy Madison members suddenly had no place to live.
“We had all these people, about 80 to 100, that were stuck with no place to go. In Madison there’s no legal place to sleep outdoors, and you get 60 to 90 days in the shelter — after that you’re on your own,” Clemente said. “We tried to stay together, we said if we had our own land perhaps we would be able to make a solution out of it.”
The overarching Occupy Wall Street movement petered out, due in part to a wide divergence of views and ideologies within the umbrella group.
But Occupy Madison, in common with other splinter groups in cities and towns across the country, began organizing on a more local level.
“We were left with more flexible, pragmatic, non-ideological people who were committed to the idea of ‘Tell me about your life, your needs, how you are suffering, how you are thriving,’ and I’ll tell you mine and we’ll figure out how we can help each other,” Clemente said.
“Occupy Madison evolved into a group based on human solidarity — we don’t care if your democrat or republican. The point is do you want to come together to cooperate, to pool your resources, creativity and physical labor to make each other’s lives better.”
In keeping with this spirit, Occupy Madison did not build the homes and then assign them to homeless people without any input, Clemente said. Moreover, individuals moving into the homes actively participated in the development and execution of the project — that way the homes are tailored to their needs, down to the design and color.
Neighbors to the site, including some Occupy Madison members themselves, were initially skeptical of having the homeless move into their community, Clemente said. But the group made an effort to involve the community and address their concerns, so that instead of “invaders,” the village would seamlessly fit into the neighborhood.
Clemente admitted he and others at the Occupy encampment initially perceived the homeless as “crashers” after friction caused by a clash of cultures between different groups. Clemente said he and others in the Occupy movement who came from a professional and academic background did not at first understand where some of the homeless individuals were coming from at meetings organized to discuss life after the camp closed.
But members acknowledged that fundamental inequality existed not just between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, but also between homeless Occupy Madison members and those from more comfortable backgrounds.
“At the end of the day, no matter how hard I work, I come home and sleep in my bed. Meanwhile, others are sleeping in trucks,” Clemente said. “That fundamental inequality hasn’t changed. That’s the real challenge to overcome, there is this inequality and we’re not each other’s enemy.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series being published by Al Jazeera America to highlight different aspects of the Homeless Bill of Rights and the plight of those living on the streets in the U.S.