What Madison's Tiny House Community for the Homeless Looks Like

May 27, 2015

The idea to create a tiny house community for homeless people in Madison grew out of the “Occupy” movement.

Back in 2011 when people took to the streets of Madison to rally against economic inequality, Occupy Madison organizers protested, ate and camped together. And over its nearly 600 day odyssey, the makeshift tribe moved thirty times – from parking lot to slushy park.

In the end, people went home, except the homeless who had nowhere to go. A core group decided to attack the problem.

Volunteer Carol Weidel says the initial plan was to create safe housing in an existing building.

“They did try to purchase a building not far from here. It was an old Sears Roebuck building. But it seemed that no one wanted to sell a building to a bunch of homeless people and their advocates. Then in December 2012 is when they decided to build tiny homes,” Weidel says.

They started with a 7 x 14, 98 square foot no-frills structure. A couple of windows provided light and ventilation. The houses cost less than five thousand dollars to build.

Weidel says the team worked out obstacles as they faced them, including the most fundamental. “We don’t know where we’re going to put (the houses) just yet, so maybe we’ll just park them on the street, which is what happened,” she says.

For almost a year, Betty and Chris, the residents of the first tiny house, had to be moved from one city street to another, every 48 hours. Technically not a problem since the tiny houses are built on wheels.

A small fraction of tiny house's volunteer work crew.
Credit S Bence

Then with money, both donated and loaned, by hundreds of individuals, Occupy Madison Inc. purchased an abandoned car repair shop on the city’s east side.

The group outfitted the large shop with table saws, welding equipment – all the tools needed to build more tiny houses.

My first visit to the shop was last January, in the middle of a frigid Wisconsin chill.

“We are going to bring that inside and finish it. We need to insulate it and each resident makes it personal to their taste,” Weidel says.

Volunteer Carol Weidel
Credit S Bence

Practically everything is repurposed here. Salvaged patio doors serve as windows. Tiles used to create a walkway between the shop and tiny houses were reclaimed from a downtown convention center project.

The plan is to fill the 1/3 of an acre lot with nine tiny houses, but first the group must raise funds to add another bathroom, along with a communal kitchen and meeting room.

Today at the tiny house village, raised garden beds sprout newly planted radishes and kohlrabi. Oak saplings are taking root and outdoor furniture awaits the evening’s potluck.

Gene Cox started here as a volunteer. “Yeah, last year after we acquired the property, I helped build all these raised beds and the road back here, so yeah over the whole last summer,” he says.

No longer living out of his van, Gene Cox's son is able to spend weekends with his dad.
Credit S Bence

Cox who has an IT job in downtown Madison was given the chance to move into one of the tiny houses a few months ago.

Occupy Madison doesn’t sell the homes. It expects residents to become stewards of the structures. They are required to attend membership meetings, help out on work days and keep the communal kitchen and bathrooms ship shape.

“I was living in my van, it’d been pretty close to a year. The summer was fine, but the winter was tough,” Cox says.

He shows me the inside of his tiny house. A small frig and microwave hug one corner, Cox’s guitar is propped behind his makeshift bed.

“I’m kind of thinking of making a murphy type bed and I saw a design with a desk that folds up. I guess I’m so used to living in a van, this isn’t a real priority,” Cox says.

At 22, Noah Phillips is one of the youngest board members of Occupy Madison, Inc. He says the tiny house is not a one size fits all solution for homelessness.

Noah Phillips jumped into Occupy Madison movement his freshman year at UW-Madison. Now he's president of Occupy Madison, Inc.
Credit S Bence

“Not everyone in Madison wants to live in a community like this, where you’ve built your own house, but you don’t own the house, you’re a steward of the house. You’re a part of this community. And you have to eventually let your guard down when you work in a community like this. So it’s not for everybody and capacity-wise we can’t take everybody. But hopefully we’re breaking new ground,” Phillips says.

Phillips says queries have been flowing in from Alabama to Alaska about Occupy Madison’s tiny house project.

There are similar efforts underway in places like Ithaca, New York; Olympia, Washington and Austin, Texas.

Tomato plants and herbs get a start in tiny house shop.
Credit S Bence

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