This article is by Damien Crisp
The future has not been written, but blueprints are being drawn up everywhere.
Many of us live as prisoners to architecture defined by capitalism. Rent is too high and far out of balance with wages. Mortgages are rigged against us.
We can pay and pay but still lose our home to foreclosure. The job market around you has collapsed and you live in fear of exile. We live in fear. Many people are homeless in the United States. Elderly and whole families unable to find shelter are becoming more and more common across the country. Homelessness and becoming a prisoner to your home mortgage are intertwined states.
did you know: 44% of homeless people are employed. pic.twitter.com/KU7OUawFqD— Occupy Wall Street (@OccupyWallSt) February 27, 2014
What is the solution? There are endless solutions. Long term solutions demand redefining architecture, redefining the home, redefining homeless shelters, and redefining perceptions of homelessness. These solutions require lengthy dissections of our whole system but their need is immediate.
In Wisconsin, Occupy Madison occupiers collected energy leftover from the end of a successful occupation and focused on building an organization capable of redefining what it means to shelter the vulnerable homeless from economic violence.
Their tiny houses project has the promise of permanent revolution for Madison. Each homeless person, inside each tiny house, will become a homeowner and steward of projects on the land where houses are parked. Occupy Madison’s solution is: give people a home. Plans for OM’s tiny houses include composting toilets, structures wired to plug into both the grid and solar power sources, vented propane heaters for blistering Wisconsin winters and a water system.
The group imagines on-going construction leaving many tiny houses spread across the city. Mobility and adding sites are central to realizing this larger idea. Tiny houses are designed with trailers on wheels. Keeping homes mobile will allow owners to rotate through a circuit of sites. Becoming stewards for various spaces, every owner would play a role all along this network. Travelling with their house to points along a circuit, owners would have shifting views through windows as they switch parking lots. Tending to projects such as gardens established at all sites, everyone would contribute to projects sustaining the community without becoming fixed on one particular role. Expanding the projects’ map furthers potential for sustainability. One garden becomes two gardens, two become four and four become eight as the list of sites grows. Every additional site multiplies openings for new stewards.
As the circuit grows, it could become a community living visionary alternatives to our dominant order that question traditional parameters defining how living, home and survival are conceived. Purchasing just one site, however, has been difficult enough. Buying one site after another is an impossibility for now but Occupy Madison is working around this obstacle by connecting with churches willing to share their parking lots and surrounding land.
How did Occupy Madison shift from encampment to construction?
“Our encampment was one of the longest,” Occupy Madison’s Bruce Wallbaum said. “It was about 580 days. We found that people that camped and were part of the political protests joined with people who didn’t have homes.“
When Occupy Wall Street was in full swing and energy flowed towards occupations movements nationwide, Wallbaum says, their focus was the “greater political protest”. Special communities had developed within Occupy Madison and lasted after “greater political protests” under Occupy’s banner were pressed until dissolution under the boot of the all-knowing State. Small communities within communities, which had orbited within Occupy Madison at its encampment, were all seeking ways to create a better world with the collective energy they found together occupying. Several people from OM travelled to Eugene, Oregon and learned from a tiny house project there. Wallbaum recalls they found the same narrative there: collective growth during occupations and a shift from greater protest towards creating another world. Because Occupy Madison became a combination of occupiers with homes and Madison’s homeless, their shift from encampment towards building another world for the homeless was simply their group dynamic manifested into an idea.
The homeless population in Madison faces a hostile real estate owner’s market hell bent on constant production of high-end residential buildings with little consideration given to ensuring balanced growth for people from diverse economic circumstances. The city has a 2% real estate vacancy rate, which is only 1% higher than New York City. This creates a top end expensive housing market for owners and renters. It also exacerbates homelessness. The city briefly had more sway over development which ensured real estate plans included affordable housing . This attempt at balance came from legislation championed by future Occupy Madison activists.
Building a solution has been easier than challenging powerful local real estate developers with legislation. Support for OM’s tiny houses has been overwhelming, according to Wallbaum, who says the group struggles to plug in all who want to volunteer. Fundraising events have also seen overwhelming response. Still, OM’s vision faces a myriad of local zoning laws as well as the not-in-my-backyard syndrome which plagues many attempts at empowering, or even sheltering, people who find themselves homeless.
The tiny house movement is an escape for the homeless. Other models of alternative housing gaining popularity focus on building escapes from mortgages and and escapes from rent. Bruce Wallbaum says younger activists joining the tiny houses project see it not only as a solution to homelessness but as a solution to their own crisis of how to survive against the pressure of debt, against a flood of low wage jobs, against widening economic inequality. Escape from standard residential space, which demands its owners or renters play the game out of fear of homelessness, as well as escape through solutions to homelessness, could reach a depth of transformation comparable to any other powerful social revolution.
Too often “home” is narrowly defined by square feet, location, and income from full-time work. Too often “home” is defined by what we are told we deserve if we just work hard enough. Cracks in the illusion our system rewards hard work will not be repaired by raising more expensive condos or denying suffering under the thumb of capitalism all around us. Cracks in the illusion of our dominant order should be encouraged, not repaired, until the illusion shatters and leaves us free to redefine living on a large scale we can only begin to glimpse in projects like Occupy Madison’s Tiny Houses.
Damien Crisp is an artist, writer and activist. He has lived in New York City, Guadalajara. Mexico, and currently lives in southeast Tennessee. His writings can be followed on social media and blogs. He was a body, voice, and citizen journalist during Occupy Wall Street's time at Zuccotti Park, as well as a coordinator for Occupy Sandy.