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By JOSEPH DI SALVO and MICHAEL J. FALLON
As affluent and innovative as Silicon Valley is said to be, the tragic condition of homelessness challenges the political system. In the absence of a collective, comprehensive plan for housing the homeless, albeit Measure A funds will enable such plan, various groups have taken upon themselves to address homelessness.
One example is “The Tiny House Project,” a collaboration of the Santa Clara County Office of Education and San Jose State University’s Center for Community Learning & Leadership. This unique partnership shows the benefits of collaboration among agencies addressing critical social issues. It has had positive results on education, homelessness, politics and sustainability.
The house was constructed mostly by 105 incarcerated students of James Ranch, Blue Ridge School class of 2016-2017, under the guidance of Principal Tara Strong and dedicated vocational instructors. This Tumbleweed model, by virtue of its size, could house a homeless mother and child at the least.
Near completion but with neither San Jose, Santa Clara County nor the Santa Clara Valley Water District having property appropriate to place a lone tiny house for a homeless person or more, the county Office of Education reached out to SJSU, whose student leadership team and Community Coalition were advocating the creation of a “transitional housing community.”
Parties agreed to showcase the Tiny House on campus as catalyst and as a home and base of operations for the homeless Stream Stewards. A reception organized by public relations students brought Office of Education staff and students to campus along with public officials to unveil this Tiny House.
The event embodied education taking place. Ranch juveniles spoke eloquently about building a house for the unhoused and about the skills they acquired while incarcerated. One said he did not know how to use a measuring tape or hand saw, but he now has the skills to build things and someday work in the construction trades. Another spoke of how gratifying it was to build something for a family in need.
Spartans spoke of their purpose, research and the politics of homelessness. The public saw the housing potential of tiny houses, especially as design students presented scale models of micro-house villages. There was vision for a mentoring partnership between SJSU and the Office of Education’s Alternative Education and Career Technical Education project-based programs addressing housing.
The Tiny House became a lightning rod for interest, planning and debate about housing the homeless, NIMBY-ism, affordable and sustainable housing, accessory dwelling units and renters’ rights. 5000 persons toured the Tiny House in 10 days, engaging student hosts with questions and suggestions about affordable housing and communal living.
Students weighed the outreach efforts of the city, county and water district and realized the challenges of dealing with bureaucracies. Design students found an audience for their research; students even attended a San Jose Neighborhood Commission meeting on “emergency bridge housing.” The Tiny House also was a feature of SJSU’s Earth Day.
But the project will not have realized its objective if the house sits empty, having failed the purpose for which the juveniles built it. The Office of Education is prepared to sell this Tiny House for $1 to an agency as the first home in a transitional homeless village.
This model tiny house has become for us collaborators and others a reflection of “All The Light We Cannot See.” It should be a best seller and spur the city, county and water district to buy in.
Joseph Di Salvo is a trustee of the Santa Clara County Office of Education. Michael J. Fallon is director of San Jose State’s Center for Community Learning & Leadership. They wrote this for The Mercury News.