Castro Valley tiny home community opens in parking lot of First Presbyterian Church of Hayward

A tiny home community in Castro Valley opened its doors this morning, to help six people end their struggle with homelessness.

It was move-in day for Patricia Soares, 65, and she couldn't contain her emotions.

"I'm about ready to cry," Soares said, with a nervous, excited laugh. "I'm ecstatic. I'm happy. I'm so blessed."

This morning she got the keys to one of the six tiny homes in the parking lot of the First Presbyterian Church of Hayward, in Castro Valley. 

Before today, Soares has lived in her Jeep for the past three years. 

She worked as a live-in caregiver for five years for a family in Castro Valley. When the family decided to move out of the area, Soares discovered her pay did not cover the cost of Bay Area rents. She was able to find a new job, but not an afforable place to live. She said she has been on a waiting list for housing subsidies for the past two years. 

She said the worst thing about being homeless, living in her car, were the long, uncomfortable nights.

"The cold was very brutal. It's still brutal," she said. "My faith has kept me going all this time. My faith and not giving up."

Soares attended First Presbyterian Church of Hayward, and through a program with the church, was allowed to park her Jeep overnight. The church has a gym, which she used to shower while she was homeless. 

Now, her new tiny home has a bathroom and shower of its own, along with a kitchen, fridge, and futon that converts from a couch to a bed. It has heat and electricity and even a small ceiling fan and vaulted ceiling. It is just 150 square feet. 

"You know, people aren't meant to be living in sheds, they're meant to live in homes. These are as nice as they can be," said the homes' designer and builder, Tom Flemming, with the non-profit Lifeline Housing group.

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"Some people end up being homeless because of a medical issue, or death in the family. It's not just people making bad life choices which is what sometimes I think people think," said Chizu Buckalew, Director of Homeless Services and Creative Housing Solutions with First Presbyterian Church of Hayward. 

The Church set aside the land, local leaders worked to adjust the zoning laws, the non-profit group, Home-Aid, Northern California and local builders and contractors worked together to make the program happen. 

"This was a two and half year process," Buckalew said. 

Buckalew said the residents now living in the tiny homes had to go through a lengthy application and screening process. All of them have jobs. The rent they pay will be set aside in a savings account that the residents will be able to tap into, after 18 months, when their time in the transitional, tiny homes is up. 

"They can access that money for a security deposit or first and last month's rent at a permanent apartment," she said. "Our hope is that other churches see this program and think, 'Oh, we can do that, too".

Alameda County District 4 Supervisor, Nate Miley, said several other churches and community groups have expressed interest in replicating the program. 

"Tiny homes are definitely a path forward to help us get people sheltered," Miley said. "It's not a panacea, but it's part of the answer. If we could produce a thousand of these, it could go a long way."

Sitting in the comfort of her new home, Soares is determined to make it work. "I just want to hug everbody," she said, wiping away tears.  "Thank you to everbody for making this possible for those of us who need the shelter."