Tiny home inspires San Jose mom to support fellow homeless people
An exterior shot of a tiny home at Casitas de Esperanza. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

Cindy Trinh keeps a busy schedule: The first two times San José Spotlight reached out to her, she said she couldn’t talk—she was driving to an encampment to hand out food to the homeless. One of her three children could be heard crying in the background.

“Being a single mom with three kids is very tough for me,” she said.

Her youngest is just one year old.

When Trinh returns home, she, her two young sons and one-year-old daughter enter a tiny home provided by the county because not too long ago, she was homeless–just like those she helps every day.

Trinh’s home is part of Casitas de Esperanza at the Civic Center, a 50-unit development in the parking lot of the old San Jose City Hall. Casitas, which opened earlier this month, is one of the county’s latest tiny home projects to house homeless families. Potential applicants are forwarded to the county, and once approved, families get to live inside a tiny home with onsite mental health and other essential services. Each family stays approximately four months before they find more permanent housing with the county’s help.

“We wanted a place that was dignified where they could call home,” said Maritza Maldonado, the director of Amigos de Guadalupe, the nonprofit that manages the day-to-day operations at Casitas. “People who have been unhoused have not been brought into our community, so our work is really about how do we bring our folks back into the community and build community with them.”

The county has looked to tiny homes as a quick way to get families off the streets and into semi-permanent housing. Each tiny home can be built from prefabricated materials in under two hours.

Mayor Sam Liccardo has advocated for such communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to help stop the spread of the virus among homeless residents.

Tiny home projects have faced scrutiny in the past. In May 2019, advocates wanted to renovate the old city hall building and use it as a homeless shelter, which the county refused. According to one of the advocates, the movement had $16 million raised before the county rejected the plan.

Trinh, however, sees her tiny home as something to be grateful for each day.

“They have air conditioning, heater,” she said. “It’s all very convenient.”

A look inside a bathroom trailer at Casitas de Esperanza. Photo courtesy Cindy Trinh.

Trinh is a former manager at a local pizzeria. She was renting a room but said her landlord put her in a tough situation.

“She started harassing me,” she said. “I got stressed out, I got depressed and everything. So I gave her back her room.”

In March 2020, when Trinh was slated to return to work after having her baby, the state announced its shelter-in-place order. Her workplace responded by cutting staff hours and letting her go. With no income to pay rent at another place, she lived out of her car with her 15- and 12-year-old sons and baby for weeks.

Trinh said she’s grateful for her situation. She’s made plenty of friends already with her bubbly personality, including homeless response volunteer Nguyen Pham, whom she met in February.

Pham encouraged Trinh to apply to the tiny home project. Now, every day, Trinh pays back her debt of gratitude by volunteering with Pham.

“Because of (Nguyen), I said I would love to volunteer with him,” Trinh said.

Both Trinh and Pham volunteer to hand out food to homeless people in encampments and senior communities in the city seven days a week.

Pham said Trinh has given him a better perspective in life and called her “reliable, responsible, caring and proactive.”

One of Trinh’s children lies down inside a tiny home provided by the county. Photo courtesy Cindy Trinh.

“Because I feed the community after hours, I often get stressed with meals and pick-up schedules,” Pham said. “Since Cindy came in to help, I started gaining a work-life balance.”

Pham said Trinh has that effect on people. Trinh says it’s because of her attitude—even during the state’s biggest health crisis in its history.

“I know it’s very tough to help get a hold of what you need,” Trinh said. “As long as you don’t give up–keep calling and calling–there will be someone to talk to you, and they will lead you to a place where they can help you.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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