Members of a local nonprofit unveiled the latest prototype on Sunday for a small, environmentally sound structure they hope will help end Fresno’s homeless problem.
The Eco Village Project of Fresno hosted around 30 community members for the groundbreaking ceremony at its Dakota EcoGarden, which currently houses around 12 homeless men and women in tents and a three-bedroom home on Dakota Avenue near Hughes Avenue in central Fresno. EcoGarden residents and former residents were also on hand to share stories of the transition from life on the street to this new community movement.
“We are working to provide not just warmth and shelter but an expansion of the human spirit,” said Arthur Dyson, a renowned local architect working to build the new structures. “We’re trying to get as many homeless folks and community members as possible involved. Nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something.”
Dyson first conceived of the project back in 2011. He envisions an entire half-block lined with these shelters surrounding a large communal building with bathrooms, a laundry room, a computer space and a large gathering area being built by the end of this year, but the group does not yet have a build site.
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These villages would be adopted by either Fresno State or Fresno Pacific university, which could send students studying counseling, sociology or other disciplines to help train the homeless residents in useful coping skills, Dyson said. Residents could only stay for a year, but that time would provide them with a solid resume, skills and money from whatever goods they made and sold in craft areas.
“We’d like to help our neighbors first, but we think this is something that could be adopted around the world,” Dyson said.
However, progress has been slow.
Both Dyson and fellow Eco Village Project board member Joan Levie said the largest hurdle has been dealing with the city of Fresno. The board seeks land for the village, as well as funding and support from city agencies.
“The city has no interest in giving us space,” Dyson said.
“We would even take some additional space just for more tents,” Levie added. “We have completely run out of space.”
Fresno District 1 Council Member Esmeralda Soria spoke at the event on behalf of the city.
“I am here to work with you guys on these types of alternative housing projects,” said Soria, whose district includes the Dakota EcoGarden. “We’d like to see this type of temporary housing continue, and it’s important for us to work in partnership to also provide help for mental health and drug issues.”
When asked about Dyson’s criticism of the city, Soria — elected last November — said she was there to collect information and share it with her fellow council members.
“I’m excited to bring this perspective and outside-the-box thinking to them,” Soria said. “We need to find working programs and replicate them throughout the city.”
The groundbreaking ceremony took place on the deck of the first prototype, a modest shelter built with various ecological amenities. Dyson explained that its solar wall, a collection of milk jugs filled with water and surrounded by fiberglass, collects heat for the occupant. The sun warms the water in the jugs, which will retain some warmth in the evening.
However, Dyson said the first shelter had difficulty cooling down. It was built slightly above the ground with a special floor designed to pull cool air in from under the structure, but it didn’t work properly.
“This is a process,” Dyson said. “We will learn and move on. We have several ideas for using reeds and bamboo — plentiful, free materials — to support the new structure.”
The Eco Village Project accepted a $5,000 donation from Temple Beth Israel synagogue that will go to fund the second small shelter. Rabbi Rick Winer opened the ceremony by thanking the project for allowing his synagogue to help those in need, and he challenged other local faith organizations to do the same.
The Dakota EcoGarden has served as a model for how the future village will work.
Mai Yang, who lives in a tent on the grounds with her husband Steve, said the board members enforce strict rules for living there. These include curfews, visitor restrictions, a firm drug-testing policy, and the requirement that each resident be actively seeking work.
Yang, who became homeless after losing her job at a laundromat, said her six months at the garden have been a great experience.
“We were on the street before this,” she said. “Here, we all get along and even gather to cook together sometimes. That’s my thing — I love to cook.”
Two former Dakota EcoGarden residents, Brittani Fanciullo and Yellowfeather Noriega, shared their success stories with guests. Fanciullo now lives with family and studies substance abuse counseling at Fresno City College, while Noriega lives in an apartment funded by the city and hopes to one day be a grant writer.
Both battled substance abuse that put them on the street and separated them from their children, but they credit the Dakota EcoGarden with helping to keep them on track after they got sober.
Fanciullo said she also learned a lot about the diversity of Fresno’s homeless community. She believes the public could benefit from understanding the many reasons why people become homeless.
“Even though both of us were addicts, that isn’t the only reason someone ends up homeless,” Fanciullo said. “Some of the Garden members lost their jobs — one even lost a spouse and was abandoned by her family.
“Everyone is just one job loss away from the streets.”