Activists Turned A Wisconsin Gas Station Into A Tiny Village for the Homeless

Occupy Madison opens the first of new 99-square-foot houses to its homeless members.

The gas station didn’t look like much. It had a chipped, Pepsi-blue coat of paint, a rotted-through roof, and a parking lot full of cracked concrete. But to the organizers of Occupy Madison, a group that gelled during 2011’s original Wisconsin encampment and turned itself into a formal nonprofit, it was perfect. Last week, Occupy Madison re-opened the former gas station as a village full of tiny houses for the homeless.


“Like many other Occupy [movements], the national focus started to wane and we started to focus on local issues,” explains Bruce Wallbaum, treasurer of the group.

Wallbaum and some of his fellow occupiers stuck around the original Occupy Madison encampment–a downtown parking lot–for nearly six months, much longer than many other Occupy encampments across the country. As Occupy gained momentum, the encampment also became a haven for the homeless. The existing shelter system had a 60-day time limit, with exceptions for extreme cold; Occupy, meanwhile, was open 24/7, and nobody had to carefully ration out days to spend sheltered from the bitter wind and snow.

“Even when we eventually agreed to leave the parking lot, we found other locations for the encampment because the folks who were organizing couldn’t walk away–these were people’s homes,” Wallbaum says.

Knowing that vehicles under 3,000 pounds could legally stay on the street for 48 hours, Occupy Madison started building small, moveable structures that they figured could relocate all over the city every two days. That plan proved too chaotic, so when the gas station became an option, the team worked with architects and city planners to snap up the unused land.

Now, three tiny homes sit on the former gas station’s parking lot. They’re 99 square feet each, painted patchwork-style in brick red, gray, green, and warm yellow. Each has a tiny bathroom, a kitchenette with small appliances, as well as a gravity sink, a small closet, and a lofted attic. For future versions, which will be partly built by local high school students, Occupy Madison wants to include fold-up beds and more storage space.

Each cost somewhere between $3,500 and $5,000, funded entirely by donations to Occupy.


“They were designed to be cute and to be accepted by the community because they’re cute,” Wallbaum says. “The whole word ‘homelessness’ scares people, obviously.”

To learn more about the project and help build more tiny houses, click here.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.