'A Beacon of Light': Unhoused Youth Move Into Oakland's New Tiny House Village

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Ernie Sandobal, who said he hasn't had a stable place to live in three years, moved into the new Tiny House Empowerment Village for unhoused youth on Feb. 19, 2021 in Oakland. (MJ Johnson/KQED)

Ernie Sandoval was awestruck as he stared at a mural painted on the side of a brightly colored tiny house in East Oakland last Friday.

“That used to be me,” Sandoval said while taking in the dynamic city scene depicted in the mural. “I used to sleep on the bus, on abandoned roofs, sleeping behind the dumpster, that was my bed for the night.”

The tiny house is part of a new village of tiny homes for unhoused youth that welcomed Sandoval and 10 other residents on Feb. 19. The village will eventually house a total of 22 young residents from Oakland and Berkeley who are experiencing homelessness.

This will be the first time the 22-year-old has had stable housing since he was kicked out of his home at age 18.

“There’s no words to describe how good it feels to be here,” Sandoval said.

The Tiny House Empowerment Village on Hegenberger Road just south of the Oakland Coliseum will operate as a transitional housing center for young people ages 18-25 in 26 tiny houses.

Youth Spirit Artworks, a Berkeley-based nonprofit arts and job training program for low-income youth, spearheaded the tiny house project since planning began in 2017. Artists, activists and over 2,000 volunteers from the community and faith-based organizations built the village over two years.

'That used to be me. I used to sleep on the bus, on abandoned roofs, sleeping behind the dumpster, that was my bed for the night,' said Ernie Sandoval, who moved into the Tiny House Empowerment Village in Oakland on Feb. 19, 2021. (MJ Johnson/KQED)

Sean Williams-McCreary, 20, a community organizer for YSA, has been involved in the planning and building of the village since its inception. As someone who has faced homelessness and housing insecurity since he was 11 years old, he said finally seeing the village completed is overwhelming and cathartic.

“It’s like watching a seed grow, and people that care a whole lot water it,” said Williams-McCreary, who will live on-site at the village as a resident assistant.

“We’re trying to build a familial environment," he said. "So I have to be that backbone for them, I have to be that support that I wish I had.”

Sean Williams-McCreary, community organizer for Youth Spirit Artworks, stands outside the Tiny House Empowerment Village for unhoused youth on Feb. 19, 2021 in Oakland. (MJ Johnson/KQED)

Each tiny house measures 8 feet by 10 feet, and includes a pull-out bed, a desk and chair, closet space, electricity and heating. Shared bathrooms, communal kitchens, gardens and community spaces within the village are part of the services on-site.

The Bay Area Transportation Working Group donated bicycles for all the residents. Residents will be able to stay for up to two years and receive opportunities for employment and jobs training from YSA programs. Four resident assistants, including Williams-McCreary, will also live in the village.

Sandoval said his dream is to one day be a film editor, and that he spoke with a case manager from YSA about applying to film school. But his first priority is getting his basic needs met.

“A good night’s sleep, a place where I don’t have to hold onto my backpack, that's what I’m actually really looking forward to,” he said.

A 2019 study on homelessness in Alameda County found that unhoused young people have a harder time accessing services including shelter, medical care and employment due to stigma and a lack of knowledge about available resources.

Of the 8,022 people experiencing homelessness in Alameda County, 9% are transition-age youth, 18-24 years old, according to the 2019 point-in-time count. Williams-McCreary said that number has dramatically increased in 2020 due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and said that he hopes the village can be a template for other cities looking to provide housing for unhoused youth.

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The city of Oakland has pioneered tiny houses as a solution to homelessness in the past, with two other sites that use Tuff Sheds as transitional homes. These tiny home communities prioritize those who have been living at nearby encampments for the longest period of time and therefore do not often house young people. The city provided YSA with $360,000 in grants to run the village and the group has raised over $210,000 in donations for construction costs.

“The village is a beacon of light for a lot of people,” said Reginald Gentry, assistant project manager for the village for YSA. “These tiny houses are affordable, they’re beautiful, they’re mobile and they’re innovative.”

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YSA commissioned artists from around the Bay Area to paint murals on the side of each tiny house. The group also delivered planks to schools and churches to be decorated with uplifting messages and artwork. The colorful planks make up the fence that surrounds the village. Gentry said the village was designed to be colorful and eye-catching so it could be a positive and transformative place for underserved youth.

Ashley, a 23-year-old resident also moving into the village, said experiencing homelessness during the pandemic has been difficult for her mental health. She has been in shelters with restrictive guidelines that prevent her from staying inside during the day or keeping her dog.

“Everyone is so positive here and seeing bright colors every day can really brighten up your mood,” she said. Ashley also said she’s overjoyed that her dog will be able to join her in the tiny house.

“For younger people this is an opportunity to get our lives back on track,” she said.

This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Ernie Sandoval's name.