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News about Occupy Madison’s "OM Build" Tiny Homes initiative is spreading like wildfire, generating excitement and attracting donors of time and money, says project organizer Bruce Wallbaum.

After news of homeless people beginning work on the first 98-square-foot house broke in early July, the initiative got its share of attention from local media. But a WMTV-15 story more than a month later — featuring video of the tiny house, nearly complete — sent coverage viral, Wallbaum recalls.

Soon media from around the country, including Al Jazeera America and, more recently, a Minneapolis news site, were doing stories on the project.

Several Occupy groups from around the country contacted Wallbaum asking about how Occupy Madison runs the program.

“Let us get the first house built and we’ll tell you,” he chuckles.

About 150 people showed up for a July 30 fundraiser where OM Build raised $17,600. And 15 people have attended each of two workshops to learn a few basic skills needed to construct the houses in the step-by-step system developed at the group’s east-side rented workshop, says Wallbaum.

Local businesses and organizations have donated everything from a solar power system to fire extinguishers and window shades. A North Carolina artist who heard about the project is offering a piece of art for each of the first five houses, Wallbaum says. Donations of scrap wood were so plentiful that the group had to discourage them. And on Saturday, OM Build will host a Pallet Palooza, where volunteers will break down the shipping platforms that are the preferred source of wood siding for the houses.

“I’m very excited about the amount of community support,” Wallbaum says.

The group’s fundraising provides seed money to operate the project for six months and test its viability, he says.

The first home, built by future occupants Chris Derrick and Betty Ybarra, will be placed on city streets when it is completed in about two weeks and moved every 48 hours as required by city ordinance. Project organizers hope that city zoning laws will be changed to allow the houses to be parked for longer periods on property owned by churches or other groups interested in assisting the initiative while OM Build works to raise money to buy land for a permanent village of the houses.

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The concept was a big hit with leaders of local faith communities who visited the OM Build workshop at 4235B Argosy Ct. last week, says Barbara McKinney, associate director of Madison-area Urban Ministry. McKinney is convener of the Greater Isthmus Group, a loose association of leaders of communities of faith interested in advocacy on housing issues. Some 30 members of the group heard a presentation on the OM Build project and “walked away feeling that this is a way to move toward addressing homelessness in our community. It’s a proactive, workable solution,” she says.

The next step is for leaders of individual congregations to bring information about OM Build to their members, with an eye to some eventually hosting a house if laws are changed to make that possible, McKinney says.

While it's still uncertain how the politics over changing local ordinances to accommodate the houses will play out, the project has captivated others who have learned about it this summer. Wallbaum recalls a woman from Canada who heard about OM Build while visiting Madison with her husband attending a conference at UW-Madison. She ended up volunteering at the workshop and purchasing a piece of the pallet furniture the group crafted and sold at its fundraiser.

“She had everyone sign it and took it back to Canada,” Wallbaum says.

What’s the appeal of the tiny houses?

“It’s so tangible,” Wallbaum says. “We’re not going to solve homelessness, but you can come and volunteer and when you walk away, you see what you’ve done and you know eventually someone who is homeless is going to have a home.”

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