It was a Eugene kind of day, gray and rainy, and one CSS staff member and two volunteers had trucked all the components of a Conestoga Hut the 323 miles from CSS’s Eugene shop—but it was a thoroughly Redding event.

Guided by the CSS crew, fourteen students from California Heritage Youthbuild Academy (CHYBA) assembled the Hut in a large lot behind the school as a broad sampling of the Redding community gathered to observe, all protected from the weather by a huge tarped canopy.

Students from California Heritage Youthbuild Academy prepare to unload Hut components.

In the middle of it all, with an enthusiastic smile and a steady stream of upbeat commentary on the virtues of the Hut, was Laural Park, the force behind this late January event. Laurel recognizes the potential for Conestoga Huts to be part of the solution to Redding’s growing homelessness problem.

Laural, a retired social worker, became concerned about the lack of emergency shelter options during the devastating fires in the Redding area in 2018. She looked into available resources and services for displaced and homeless people and came to the conclusion that “our local communities are doing the best they can with what they have, but we need to do something better.”

She first heard about CSS last September when, exploring what other communities were doing, she had come to Eugene to visit SquareOne Villages and saw a Hut at Opportunity Village. Intrigued, Laural and her husband Chuck came back a month later and met with CSS Development Director Kristin Fay de Buhr. They toured Safe Spots and the CSS shop. She saw the “something better” that could help fill the gaps in Redding’s services for the homeless. She discovered that “the Huts are an affordable, transitional option to house people who are unsheltered,” she says.

Around that time, Chuck, also retired, had his eye on a top-of-the-line 10-inch telescope for his astronomy hobby and asked Laural what she might want for a comparable splurge. “I told him,” she says, “‘I want a Conestoga Hut.’”

Her idea was that if decision makers and community members could see the simple process of building a Hut and its effectiveness as an emergency shelter, then she would find allies to address obstacles like zoning, funding, and providing necessary services for residents.  She made arrangements with CSS Executive Director Erik de Buhr to purchase a Hut and have the components delivered to Redding, along with a small crew to guide local folks in putting it together.

She found natural local partners for assembling the Hut at CHYBA. The eight-year-old public charter school is part of the nationwide Youthbuild movement and provides 16–24 year olds with academic, life skills, and career development training. Its construction training program emphasizes projects in community service and affordable housing. Assembling a Hut matched their mission perfectly. “It’s amazing,” says Lane Carlson, career and technical education director at CHYBA, “as far as the fit with our mission, it is absolutely the pinnacle of affordable housing.”

The sheltered area where the Hut would be built

The day of the build was rainy and windy. But Lane and some of his students had covered an area about 20 feet wide by 30 feet long with tarps that peaked about 20 feet high, supported by metal tubing and ropes, shielding the building process and the gathering of people from the community who came to watch it—a key element of the event—from the worst of the weather.

Shortly after 9 a.m., students in bright yellow vests streamed from the school building and set right to work unloading the truck and trailer that had carried the Hut components and tools from Eugene. Divided loosely into two groups, taking turns doing hands-on work and observing, some students dug holes for the circular pier blocks of the foundation, while others, demonstrating the strength of their young backs, muscled the blocks into place. The build was on. The CSS Hut Crew volunteers, well past their days of strong backs, stepped back to guide the students through the rest of the foundation and putting the two-piece floor together. Three or four wielded cordless drivers to attach the components to one another, and a couple used tape measures to make sure the floor sat properly on the foundation.

A crew moved eagerly to get the back Hut wall, the next component in the process, but a pause was called. The build was ahead of schedule. Media representatives and community members were scheduled to arrive at 10 and everyone wanted them to see the walls put in place, when the Hut literally takes shape.

CHYBA students secure the back wall

When the process resumed, with the media present and a great turnout from the community, especially given the weather, the immediate area around the emerging Hut became a beehive of yellow-vested activity: drivers and saws and staple hammers and levels changing eager hands as the students placed and secured the walls, the front deck, the roof structure, interior and exterior insulation, the outer roof membrane, and finally a bed with a mattress: A finished Hut.

“I’m thrilled. I love it,” Laural says. When everything else was done, she, with a couple of the students helping, added a few extra amenities: a curtain, bed spread and pillow, LED light, wall hooks, and pavers for a pathway. “I wanted to make it feel homey and inviting to someone,” she says, adding to the “cuteness factor” of the Hut, “which is a big selling point.”

“I was amazed at how this came together,” she says. “The kids did a great job because they had good instruction. Everybody partnered as a team to do something to improve the plight of people in our community.”

“The kids loved being a part of it,” Lane of CHYBA says. “They loved working with [the CSS] guys. And they were excited about the project itself and the prospect of these things moving forward. They really liked the product. Everybody’s intrigued.” Lane and his students would love to be part of producing more Huts, including the components. The school facility includes a workshop with all the tools necessary.

Long-time CSS Hut Crew volunteer Jim Schmidt enjoyed the eager engagement of the CHYBA students. “The students in Redding were great to work with,” he says. “They were eager to learn, and enthusiastic and excited about the idea of helping people who have become homeless.”

Redding advocate Laural Park shares the Conestoga Hut story with interested community members

There was also important work going on among the 50-60 people who, over the course of the morning, watched this process take place, building the awareness and connections necessary to turn this demonstration into an active solution.

“I was really pleased with the sample of people in our community that showed up,” Laural says. “We had political people, we had people that had been thinking about this for a long time and didn’t know what to do. We had friends of mine, we had people from agencies, and some government people. And, of course, the media, which really helps.”

CSS Project Coordinator Charles Castle spent most of his time sharing the CSS story with curious onlookers. “It was clear by the turnout that Laural was very motivated and she had the interest of the community,” he says. “It was a good crowd. Several community members were taking videos and asking questions and the media stayed for the whole event. Given the rainy weather we were particularly happy with the extensive covered area the people at CHYBA had prepared for us. We left Redding feeling really good about making the trip.”

Laural says one of the most memorable moments for her was when she saw two of the students in the Hut, after the lunch break as they were getting ready for the final stages of the build. “They were talking to each other, and they were excited about what they were doing. One of them said, ‘OK. Let’s get this Hut built and get it out to someone who’s homeless. Let’s go!’”

The buzz begun by the Hut build reverberated around Redding in the days that followed. Local media covered the build in-depth and enthusiastically. One television station did a series of follow-up stories on homeless issues in the area. The local country music station and morning talk shows were all talking about the build and the Hut. CHYBA students proudly showed their parents what they had built. Lots of people posted images on Facebook. People who hadn’t been at the build were already scheduling tours of the Hut, which is at the heart of Laural’s plan: Using the demonstration Hut as a shining example to garner support.

“So that’s the idea,” Lane says. “We’ll take that tent down around it, kind of dress up the area and try to give people an impression of what a community of these could look like.”

Laural says the current buzz has created “pressure now to start moving on this. We have momentum and I don’t want to lose it.”

Current Redding zoning laws do not allow people to live in a structure like the Hut. Creation of a Hut community similar to CSS’s Safe Spots will also require funding and a partnership with an agency to provide the case management service to help residents. Laural says that she does not have the background to address all these issues, “but I know people who do.”

• Lane is looking into local land-use laws and potential locations for a community of Huts.

• A local tiny home building company, Forever Tiny Homes, has said they’d love to help with Hut construction.

The finished Hut and CSS Project Coordinator Charles Castle, Laural, and CSS Hut crew volunteers Guy Maynard and Jim Schmidt

• Homeless advocate Redding City Councilwoman Kristen Schreder, who was at the build, has gathered enough support from other council members that the city’s development services director has agreed to a meeting and will research the zoning and permitting issues standing in the way of making Huts a part of Redding’s strategy to address homelessness.

• LifeSteps, a social service agency that focuses on helping people struggling with housing challenges, is “totally on board” to provide case management to future Hut residents, once funding becomes available

“I’m very encouraged by the progress we’ve made already,” Laural said just a few days after the Hut went up.

She still hopes to find a nonprofit organization that she can partner with that can provide oversight and be the fiscal agent for the project. And she knows funding will be a vital component. Before the build, she told the CSS crew, “I don’t have funding yet. But,” she said with a determined, no-one’s-going-to-slow-me-down smile, “I’m going to get it.” With the success of the Hut build changing the dynamics of the discussion about dealing with homelessness in Redding, there is no reason to doubt that she will.