Shared from the 2/20/2021 San Francisco Chronicle eEdition

Sheltering dreams takes small village

Nonprofit’s work pays off in houses for young people in Oakland, Berkeley

Photos by Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

Daniel Holloway, who has been sleeping in a car, films Friday’s grand opening with friend Justyce Powell.


Holloway (right) and Sean Williams-McCreary live in one of the tiny 8-foot-by-10-foot homes in a village that includes two communal yurts.

Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle

Daniel Holloway, 20, sets down a pillow as he looks at his new home with his friend Justyce Powell, 18.

Sean Williams-McCreary, 20, gazed at the rows of brightly colored tiny homes on a once-empty lot near Oakland’s Coliseum, elated that the nearly four-year project was ready for its first residents.

Williams-McCreary worked on the project at 633 Hegenberger Road as part of his involvement with Youth Spirit Artworks, an art and jobs training program in Berkeley. He wanted to create a place where homeless young people felt safe and supported, and on Friday, he was one of 15 people who moved into the homes. The village eventually will house 26 young people from Oakland and Berkeley ages 18 to 23.

Youth Spirit Artworks started work on the village in 2016 with the help of more than 100 young people enrolled in its programs, 32 religious groups and 2,000 other volunteers.

As Oakland and Berkeley struggle with steep increases in their homeless populations — up nearly 47% from 2017 to 2019 in Oakland and 11% during the same time period in Berkeley — nonprofit providers are intervening with innovative and lower-cost solutions to meet the demand. Meanwhile, the cities are working on their own projects. Oakland recently purchased a dormitory for nearly $15 million for homeless families and Berkeley has been in talks to open a city-sanctioned encampment.

Williams-McCreary joined Youth Spirit Artworks when he was 16 after spending nearly five years couch surfing with his mother and brother. No longer homeless, he will now work as a residents’ assistant at the site.

“I’ve come almost every Saturday and labored my blood and my sweat into this project,” he said. “It’s a full circle. I was housing insecure and now I’m helping folks that are housing insecure. It’s so surreal.”

Youth Spirit Artworks raised nearly $1.3 million to build the homes from scratch and operate the site. Each one cost $12,500 to build. Oakland leased a 2-acre cityowned property to the nonprofit for free.

The 8-foot-by-10-foot homes have electricity and heated floors. Each has a bed that can fold into the wall and become a desk. Williams-Sonoma donated rugs and sheets. And artists painted murals on the tiny homes.

“Each house has its own quilt that matches the paint, matches the curtain (and) all goes together,” said Sally Hindman, executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks and a Quaker. “Every house has just been given incredible care and love.”

The property also has gardens and two yurts — one that is a communal kitchen and another that is a living room. Bathrooms and showers are also on-site. The city of Berkeley is providing case management to residents.

Ernesto Sandobal, 22, was kicked out of his house at 18 and has lived on the streets since.

When he heard of the Youth Spirit Artworks program, he immediately applied. He said the organization said it would help him get into film school. Sandobal said he wants to work on Marvel movies in the future.

On Friday, Sandobal sat on a couch in the living room yurt waiting to move into one of the tiny homes that day. He said he had his heart set on the home with baby blue walls and pink curtains.

“Blessed, I feel blessed, I really do,” he said with a smile.

Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SarRavani

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