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Barrios Unidos embraces tiny home movement for young people, homeless, veterans of color

Santa Cruz Sentinel - 6/10/2018

June 10--SANTA CRUZ -- They are recently homeless or incarcerated. They are young. And they are struggling to find housing in Santa Cruz County and the Bay Area.

They are the prime candidates of a tiny home, said Barrios Unidos founder and Executive Director Daniel "Nane" Alejandrez while he stood inside a model small structure at the nonprofit's campus on Saturday. Barrios Unidos unveiled the unit with its wooden floors, painted blue walls fitted with a large window, small refrigerator and television atop a book shelf.

"A tent is not a home," Alejandrez said. "A cardboard box and sleeping bag is not a home. We see this in Santa Cruz every day."

Alejandrez said he wants the community to consider expanding how it considers small homes. He said it should be an alternative for people struggling to find a place to live, especially people of color.

"Our young people from Santa Cruz cannot live in Santa Cruz. They are couch surfing. Many have to leave or they live in drug-infested areas just to afford to live here," Alejandrez said.

Barrios Unidos specializes in helping formerly incarcerated people return to productive, free lives.

For Hawk Lowden, a San Francisco gardener and psychology major at San Francisco State, tiny homes would allow formerly incarcerated people and his distant relatives at the Hoopa Valley Reservation in Northern California to occupy less space in a healing communal environment.

Lowden, who served roughly 27 years in prison for a traffic death involving intoxicated driving, said he will live with that grief the rest of his life. He attended Saturday's event to give back to his, and others', communities in a life-long quest to spread positivity after enduring the depths of despair.

At one point in his prison term, Lowden spent six months in solitary confinement. The desolation spurred his self reflection and recovery.

He said tiny homes would help many of his fellow rehabilitated parolees.

"I had a rough childhood," Lowden said. "I blamed a lot of my problems on others. It took time, but I finally learned to be accountable in the last 11 years of my incarceration."

When he was released -- on Oct. 24, 2014 -- he found a garage to live in, courtesy of a friend and Alcoholics Anonymous supporter living in San Francisco.

He met Alejandrez, who was "bringing the message of hope and teaching anti-violence" to the incarcerated, Lowden said.

"My drinking and my driving hurt a lot of people," Lowden said. But his path to becoming a productive adult has driven him to boost others. "I can't change my past, but I can change myself."

Now, he said he wants to build a retreat on his property in Northern California to help others from similar backgrounds.

"I have the property. It would be perfect to work with the youth in the community," Lowden said.

For 73-year-old Wesley Haye, who was convicted of murder and since has been released on parole, his struggles started as a youth and as an Army veteran returning from the war-torn Dominican Republic in 1966. The U.S. was engaged in operations in the Caribbean amid fears of uprisings inspired by the Cuban Revolution. The involvement in Hispaniola was known as Operation Power Pack, The Californian reported.

Haye, who was born in Panama and is proud to be bilingual, "came back lost and dark," he said.

There wasn't a word for his condition: now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Haye, released in March 2014, said he was among those who did not know whether they would ever be released. He said that uncertainty helped to propel him to pursue a life of service. He said he recognizes the housing struggles of many people who have been incarcerated, particularly the veterans.

"We are held on a tighter chain," Haye said.

Richard Vasquez, a friend of Alejandrez, said he recently returned from Mexico and in that nation's capital, there was a protest about the lack of affordable housing.

"This is a universal problem," Vasquez said. "There are Americans who retire in Mexico for the same reason: Because they can't afford to live here."

David Foster, executive director of Habitat for Humanity Monterey Bay, said Barrios Unidos is forging creative solutions to the area's housing problem.

He said Habitat will consider how it might help efforts to create tiny homes -- those smaller than 500-square-foot accessory dwellings known as ADUs.

"Habitat is working with low-income families," Foster said. "Barrios is looking to work with low- low-income people."

The housing problem -- high rent and low supply of homes -- is growing in the Central Coast, Foster said.

"If every church in this county adopted one or two tiny houses, we could absolve our housing crisis," Foster said.


(c)2018 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)

Visit the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.) at www.santacruzsentinel.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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