Occupy Madison

Tiny house village built by and for the homeless opens in Wisconsin

Community the result of coalition between activists and homeless during Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011

A community of tiny houses for the homeless opened this weekend in downtown Madison, Wisconsin — built by a coalition of homeless individuals and members of Occupy Madison, organizers told Al Jazeera.

Four people, including one couple, will move into the first set of three finished homes on privately owned land this week. The next phase of the project will see six homes, another bathroom and community room complete with a kitchen and laundry facility built in the spring.

The site is the latest example of groups turning toward one-room properties to provide shelter to those who would otherwise go without, and is believed to be one of the first that has actively involved homeless individuals throughout the building process.

“We had heard about these tiny houses in the media, but mostly in the context of middle class Americans downsizing their lifestyle,” Luca Clemente, an Occupy Madison member, told Al Jazeera. “We saw that it would be possible to do the same thing for the homeless.”

The project is entirely autonomous, and funded by private donations, organizers said, and could serve as a model for other cities.

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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.

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