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The organization is backed by 30 congregations including Christian churches, Buddhist groups, and Jewish temples. "There's a Jewish value ... that all people are created in the image of the divine and one of the things that gets in the way for me walking through the world as it is today is the challenge of interacting with people on the street, seeing the housing crisis," said Rahel Smith, one member of the group that petitioned the Berkeley Council in June. "For me, it brings in full focus that we're not living in a community that treats people as though we all have a spark of the divine in us. And this project is one way to move towards building a community that reflects our values." Retired Rabbi Harry Manhoff told the council, "It's been the most exciting and most important experience of my life and it has given my life meaning."
West Side Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Ken Chambers hosts three Laney College students in houses on his church's property. Chambers, who was homeless briefly during the 2008 recession, said his church community is very sensitive to homelessness. The church parking lot allows people who live in their cars to stay there, and allows a barber truck and shower truck come to give free haircuts and showers. Laundry machines are also provided. Although he wishes the students he is housing would do more of the volunteer work he asks of them, he wants to continue the program, which he believes is helpful in several ways. "Their grades were like Ds when they were sleeping in their cars and couch surfing," Chambers said. "Since they've been in here for their first semester, they raised to a B+. So we felt really good about that."
Chambers himself is an alumnus of Laney College, which he attended with family support. Although he worked while in school, he dropped out when he started having children. "It's very difficult for students to be self-sufficient without family and other support," he said.
Several of the people involved in the project, and several of the future residents, will be students. "It's extremely important for people to go to school especially in order to change the systemic injustice that we face with education," founder Sally Hindman said.
Youth Spirit Artworks participant Ezekiel Espinoza is 19 years old, and had to drop out of school after his family lost their house. He currently works four jobs and supports himself, his mother, and his younger brother. He wants to pursue business and is considering UC Berkeley once he has saved some money for himself. He paints tiny houses for Youth Spirit Artworks, "When you go to YSA you get paid to do events and you get paid to do certain stuff so that's the cool part," he said. "And city government supporting YSA, it definitely benefits the youth there while teaching them job skills really helps."
Rossi DeLozada works at Youth Spirit Artworks as a tiny house builder and art sales leader. Soon DeLozada will be among the first to live in one of the tiny houses. The place is a good outlet for him. DeLozada said that pursuing education seems like the best way in the long run to avoid being trapped in minimum-wage jobs. "You can do something and study for something that you like and actually are passionate about instead of just begin depressed and working at a Starbucks or as a waiter," he said. "Because I've worked as a busser ... but I was just feeling like I was wasting my time because I was saving money, but all the little money I would spend would just be to help out my father and stuff."
DeLozada and his brother share a card for the CalFresh Food Stamps program, which gives him $100 a month for food. And a friend introduced him to a Sikh temple in El Sobrante, where DeLozada goes for food. Still, he said he finds it hard to focus on school while he is constantly thinking about what he is going to do after class and where he will go. But soon he be one of the first students to live in one of YSA's tiny houses. He hopes to be able to pursue his dream of being an artist and a musician.