What if Unhoused People Designed Their Own Homes?
In East Oakland, home to what the San Francisco Chronicle calls the “Bay Area’s hottest housing market,” a row of stucco townhomes sprung up along a blighted stretch of MacArthur Boulevard in 2021. Tan-colored and not outwardly remarkable, they were designed, according to their creator, Tiny Gray-Garcia, as an antidote to “gentrifuckation.” Homefulness, as the eight-unit place is known, now provides rent-free homes to recently unhoused individuals—including Tiny and many others who conceived the project, hammered the studs, hung the drywall, and now collectively manage the space. “This is a poor people-led solution to our own problems,” says Gray-Garcia, a pigtailed and sharp-tongued 48-year-old single mother who lived in cars and abandoned buildings as a child and young adult.
California has nearly a million more “extremely low-income” households than units available to house them. When it comes to bridging that gap, Homefulness stands in stark contrast to solutions proffered by what Gray-Garcia calls the “nonprofiteer industrial complex.” While Sacramento recently flooded social service organizations with billions to help end homelessness, to Gray-Garcia, those dollars are a band-aid on a broken “crapitalist” system. As she wrote in The Sidewalk Motel, her new poetry collection, “Change won’t come from a savior, a pimp, or an institution. Change will only come from a poor people-led revolution.”
When I visited the Homefulness complex’s yard on an overcast afternoon, chickens foraged beneath fruit trees, and “therapy goats” bleated in pens. Gray-Garcia wouldn’t want the livestock to lead you astray: “This is not a hippie-utopic dream.” It’s more like a landless people’s movement, she said, citing Philadelphia’s MOVE organization, South Africa’s Shack Dwellers, and Mexico’s Zapatistas as inspiration. (Nodding to Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos’ practice, she obscures her face in public.) “Private property is a settler-colonial lie,” she tells me, pointing out that the curb at our feet is the exact curb where she and her mother often parked and slept decades ago.
Unhoused individuals are often subject to “about us, without us” plans, which helps to explain what the industry calls the “service-resistant.” Israel Muñoz, who lived in a tent on and off for about five years before landing at Homefulness, explains that “very restrictive” rules kept him from traditional shelters: “The people humiliate you. That’s a reason a lot of people live in the streets instead.” At Homefulness, Muñoz feels part of a family, one that keeps him busy and away from his addictions. “Here it’s not like, ‘I’m the manager,’” he says. “If you got issues with anybody, we cancel everything and we sit down. The whole village.”
Homefulness began over a decade ago by renovating an abandoned bungalow and has slowly grown with volunteer architects and engineers. Eight residents will welcome at least a dozen more once fully occupied. By Gray-Garcia’s ad hoc accounting, building it cost over half a million dollars. None came from the usual “politrickster” and “philanthropimp” sources, she boasts, but instead largely from the “solidarity family”—a group, now numbering more than 100, of supporters and graduates of Tiny’s workshops deprogramming “folks with race and class privilege.” While donations to its 501(c)(3) are tax-deductible, Tiny insists, “this is not charity. It’s poverty reparations.”
“You don’t get to have any agenda-setting power just because you throw down a bunch of money,” says Cecilia Lucas, a lecturer in UC Berkeley’s Global Poverty and Practice program, who has been one such supporter for eight years. Lucas says the model of giving helps materially secure people “rethink your concepts of expertise and knowledge production.”
“There’s something really magnetizing about Tiny,” says Lucas, who has lectured with Gray-Garcia. Tiny approached the appearances as political performances, arriving in character as a homeless person who starts going through the garbage bins. Once the audience is sufficiently uncomfortable, they’re let in on the shtick. It’s a comment on “how people quickly get called insane and seen as trash,” Lucas says.
While Gray-Garcia takes pride in disrupting the status quo, she seems to do so in ways that buttress her undeniable talent for persuading certain segments of the Bay Area intelligentsia to part with their dollars. In 2018, Tiny was invited to give a talk broadcast to Google employees worldwide, part of a series that’s featured Henry Kissinger and Hillary Clinton. She strode into company headquarters in a tattered orange jumpsuit, an homage to being jailed for sleeping in her car, and dark shades. Then she began with a bit of verse: “I am a poverty scholar, all the people you don’t want to be, never want to see, look away from me. Whatcha gonna do, arrest me?”
After the lecture, Gray-Garcia started an anti-gentrification protest in a campus quad; they were promptly thrown out. William Fitzgerald, a Google communications manager who helped engineer her visit, recalls getting the call from security: There’s this “motley crew of crazies” screaming, “You need to give us reparations!” the officer said. “Only a few miles away people are living in tents, but yeah, these people were very upset that their lunch was being ruined,” Fitzgerald, who soon quit the company, recalled.
Once booted off, the Homefulness crew continued their day knocking on doors in wealthy Silicon Valley neighborhoods, politely asking if residents would consider redistributing extra homes, cars, or cash. It’s a recurring motif that usually ends in comically awkward conversations with police officers who can’t identify a valid cause of arrest.
Money raised goes toward regular projects, but also to the Bank of ComeUnity Reparations—an account Gray-Garcia and a council of senior Homefulness members can draw on for acute needs, like motel rooms for evicted families. One day when I was hanging out at Homefulness, a man walked in needing money for his son’s funeral. Gray-Garcia asked the amount and wrote a check. Last year, the bank disbursed more than $100,000.
Five days a week, a gaggle of kids can be found in the Deecolonize Academy, a Homefulness-run K–12 homeschool named after Gray-Garcia’s mom, Dee, who died in 2006. Quarters are tight, packed with computers, couches, and a terrarium housing Don Juan the Low-Income Lizard, a bearded dragon. The school kitchen is also Gray-Garcia’s. Students going to the bathroom cross her bedroom. An attic doubles as the Homefulness office and a bedroom for two teenage boys, including her 18-year-old son, Tiburcio, now navigating the online reality of pandemic-era college.
One afternoon, I attended a weekly “revolutionary construction and land operations” consensus meeting, where I was pleasantly surprised by the goofy, good-natured vibe. The teens cut up with fart jokes and were scolded for leaving dirty dishes. The group weighed acquiring another shipping container and converting it into a walk-in fridge; one already on-site houses a library and a recording studio. Another topic of debate: city hall’s “permit gangsters,” who are withholding final occupancy until they spend $34,000 on three additional parking spaces, resulting in months of delay for folks promised a spot at Homefulness. One thwarted future resident just died and there’s discussion about whether her husband is now suicidal. Gray-Garcia choked up. “They were supposed to come heeere,” she moaned.
Shola Olatoye, director of Oakland’s housing and community development department, questions whether Homefulness’ model could scale to meet the region’s needs. The group is “rightfully pissed off” that the government has not acted urgently enough, but she says eight “units in 10 years isn’t going to solve the fact that there are probably now 6,000 people living on the streets” in Oakland. She points instead to mammoth Bay Area projects, like the 2,000 low-income units going up on Treasure Island, with 20 percent designated for formerly houseless individuals. While Olatoye agrees “there’s a role for resident voices in the solutions around homelessness, we also need professionals around the table…I would never tell a hospital how they should deliver a baby, despite the fact that I’ve had three.”
But other advocates embrace Gray-Garcia’s style. “Homefulness pushes back against the traditional patriarchal charity model,” says Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, “ensuring that people have agency.” Friedenbach credits Gray-Garcia’s unique success at fundraising, saying there are “plenty of groups of unhoused people that are organizing for housing who have the tenacity and ability to pull this off—if the funding is there.”
Gray-Garcia is already at work replicating the townhome project on property they’ve purchased a few blocks away. A pro bono architect is working on a design for a 14-unit complex. And discussions are underway with a group in Eugene, Oregon, that plans to use their model. “I want to Homefulness the world,” she says.
Brian Barth has written for publications such as New Yorker, Washington Post and National Geographic. Front Street, his book on the unhoused communities of Silicon Valley, is forthcoming from Astra House.
Co-published with Mother Jones.