Occupy Madison builds tiny houses for the homeless

Activists are building microhomes on wheels to address Wisconsin capital’s pressing housing problem

Occupy Madison activists and volunteers build a 98-square-feet-home for the homeless on Aug. 2013
Occupy Madison

The activists behind Occupy Madison have come up with a tiny solution to a big problem: building mini-homes for the homeless community as part of an ongoing political campaign against homelessness in Wisconsin's capital city.

Madison's housing vacancy rate, 1.8 percent, is four times lower than the national average, and an estimated 3,000 people reported having spent at least one night in a shelter last year. 

The homes are around 98 square feet and will be equipped with a microwave, a small refrigerator, and heating, according to the organizers. The units are built on wheels and will have to be moved every 48 hours to circumvent the city’s parking requirements, which prohibit trailers from staying outdoors on the same location for more than two days.

"It’s very difficult to be homeless in Madison within city limits; there is no provision for camping outdoors," Bruce Wallbaum, a board member of OM Build, Occupy Madison’s nonprofit organization in charge of building the units, told Al Jazeera.

"It’s a small home but a very adequate home," he added. "People are fearful of people living in tents, and I think that a home sort of takes away that fear."

Marsha Rummel, a Madison councilwoman who sits on a housing committee, embraces the idea of micro-homes. While she doesn't believe they are the ultimate solution, she told Al Jazeera they can be "one part of the package.''

"Madison clearly has a challenge for housing people," she said.

One home is already close to completion, with plans for up to eight more within a year. Over time, the organizers hope to expand the project into an eco-community with facilities of various sizes, including one-bedroom houses. 

Other cities with strong Occupy movements have already established such communities, such as Portland's Dignity Village and the Quixote Village in Olympia, Wash., which started to provide housing to the homeless ahead of the nationwide Occupy Wall Street protests.

Occupy Madison has been ordered to move 30 times since its founding in October 2011, according to activists, and has been in conflict over camping rights with park officials and Mayor Paul Soglin. The mayor's office was not available for comment.

Sense of dignity

Those who live in the mini-homes are expected to help build their own houses to give people "a sense of dignity” while taking part in community activities, Wallbaum said.

"You go through an application process, you start work in the shop, you start earning hours toward a tiny home and eventually you reach a point where you’re in line to get a tiny home," he explained.

Betty Ybarra and Chris Derrick, a middle-aged couple who said they have been homeless in Madison for more than a year, are very excited about moving in together.

"We’ll have to learn how to live together on just 98 square feet," Derrick told Al Jazeera, "but I think we can do it. We’re a little anxious, but also really happy and excited" about moving into the house that he and his partner Ybarra helped build.

Many Madison residents support of the project, which was funded entirely by philanthropic donations, organizers said. The University of Wisconsin’s Engineering department donated a solar electric system for the housing units, the local fire department donated smoke alarms, and one artist offered to produce a unique piece of artwork for each home, Wallbaum said.

Brenda Konkel, executive director of Tenants Resource Center, a nonprofit organization offering local housing counseling, hopes the units will help address the city’s housing problem. The low vacancy rate squeezes out many people from affordable housing, forcing some to live in cars or sleep on official camping sites for $17 per night, she said.

"The housing that [the city] is building is just completely unaffordable," said Konkel. As a result, homeless people are forced to take refuge in temporary housing shelters. But once time allotments run out they return to the streets where they are subject to police fines. "What we're trying to do is break that circle," she said.

Occupy Madison is also working with church leaders to find an arrangement that would provide a permanent location for the mobile houses on the churches’ parking lots, "but that would also require the city’s zoning laws to change," Wallbaum said.

Councilwoman Rummel said that she was mulling the possibility of introducing legislation that would allow churches and non-profits groups to accommodate the homes.

The first unit is slated to be ready in a couple of weeks and will be stationed near Occupy Madison’s workshop, a garage with a 9-foot ceiling in the eastern part of the city, close to other industrial workspaces.

"The people who live in the homes aren’t really interested in being a spectacle," Wallbaum said. "They want to stay out of the limelight."

Philip Victor contributed to this report

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