Protest Movement Turned into a Commitment to the City’s Homeless

Written by Kathern Felton Paige

February of 2021, marks the ten year anniversary when thousands of concerned citizens protested with Wisconsin public employees against Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature moving to limit public employee rights to collective bargaining. These protests merged into the Occupy Madison (OM) movement, which like many other cities in America was in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Due to city and county ordinances, the OM movement had to move to a new place every night. What OM members didn’t realize at the time was that many who were moving along with them in protest were homeless individuals. The homeless population in Madison had realized that these OM encampments were a safe place where they could get food and shelter. Board member Luca Clemente said that in the beginning of the Occupy Madison movement there was conflict between the activists and the homeless. The homeless felt they were doing the real occupying because many of the activists went home at night. The homeless referred to the activists as “housies” and the activist referred to the homeless as “crashers,” he said.

The homeless population realized that OM was protesting for rights that mattered to them too and OM activists realized that OM was faced with the same challenges as the homeless population. Clemente said, “It became clear that people were in real pain.” He said it wasn’t easy, but they got past their differences and worked together. During their two plus year protest OM advocates spent time and money to build the encampments to meet local laws and city regulations and codes, but in 558 days the encampment was forced to move its location 30 times and the protestors received city and county ordinance citations.

Board member Bruce Wallbaum said, “For years many of the OM members have been fighting for equal opportunity for resources rather if you’re homeless or not.” He said in response to the protests and the continued plight of the homeless population, OM became a non-profit organization in 2013. They have advocated with and for citizens in Madison who have and are currently experiencing homelessness. Wallbaum said they have worked together for more shelter space, improved shelter rules, access to restrooms, showers and laundry facilities.

Despite their efforts, the homeless shelters remained full and there was no movement by the local government or other non-profits to add anymore shelters. According to the Tenant Resource Center, there are approximately 500 chronically homeless citizens in Madison. The coupling of rental rates in Madison at an all-time high and vacancies far and few between (2%) is a problem for many Madison residents. Having a job does not guarantee that you will be able to afford a place to live. Affordable Housing in Madison has long waiting lists (up to a year) and section 8 housing closed their waiting list years ago.

In an effort to help the homeless obtain affordable transitional housing OM became a 501 (c) (3) non-profit and started a project called OM Build. OM board member Bruce Wallbaum said they starting building Tiny Houses in June 2013.  Wallbaum said, “The first three homes were built by volunteers and paid for by community donations.” He said that each home costs $5000 in materials and supplies. The houses are 99 square feet and are built on wheels so they can be moved if necessary.

Wallbaum also said due to concern for their property values and a possible increase in crime, 70% of the neighbors were against the purchase of the property for the Tiny Village. After a year of no police incidents and property values remaining stable, they have since come around. He said that Alder Larry Palm has been behind the project since the beginning and the local newspaper did interviews and made a video with the neighbors who now have no complaints.

The Village and the OM Build project is making a big impact and getting a lot of attention.  Visitors from 23 states and several countries have toured the Village in the past year. OM-Tiny Houses & More has a great website with tons of information. Wallbaum said they would love to help start Tiny Villages in other communities, but they are a small group and are 100 % funded by volunteers.

OM resident and member Russel Albers said that he became involved in 2011 because, “I believe in affordable housing for all.” Albers says he was living out of his truck during the OM protests because he lost his job and was having trouble finding a new one. He said he couldn’t afford to pay rent. “Until it happens to you, it’s hard for anyone to understand how fast you can lose everything,” he said.  “If your coach surfing and have no permanent address and you’re living out of your car, employers don’t want to hire you,” he said.

Phase 1 was completed in late 2014, OM purchased an old auto body shop on Madison’s near eastside, and the OM volunteers and board members have tirelessly worked to repair and clean up the property and Phase 1.  He said phase I brought in approximately 80,000 dollars in donations and 1000 volunteer hours. Albers said the first three residents took occupancy in 2015 and Madison’s first micro village of Tiny Houses became a reality.

Albers said, The Tiny Village is now working on Phase 2, which has already seen five more houses built and two new residents. He said, “Tiny Home residents are called stewards, and can be a couple or an individual.” He said future stewards have to put in 500 hours of volunteer work on a house or in the OM store to earn stewardship and residency in the OM Village. Once a steward moves into their Tiny Home they must continue to volunteer on a monthly basis. Albers said, “We have rules that have to be followed such as no drugs or alcohol in the Village and every steward has to participate in the chore wheel.” Albers said they modeled the “sweat equity” after Habitat for Humanity and the “chore wheel” from another Tiny Village in the state of Washington.

Albers took me on a tour and I was able to see one of the unfinished houses up close and personal as well as the workshop, cooperative kitchen, three bathrooms, four large gardens and a retail store. He showed me where the new community center and the new kitchen were planned to be built as part of Phase 2.

For those interested in duplicating their project, they recommend that you visit their web page where they give you tips on how to start a Tiny Houses Village in your community. You can also like them on Facebook at or visit the Village in person at 304 North Third Street, Madison, WI 53704.

They encourage everyone to remember, “It takes a village to make a village.”