Homeless mom had a dream to convert her bus into a home. It’s happening

Story by Meiying Wu and Tessa Paoli. Meiying was in charge of photography and videography and co-edited the video piece. This story is published on the San Francisco Chronicle.

The idea gradually came to Constance Johnson as she traveled back and forth between homeless shelters and an old bus she’d purchased on Craigslist a few years back.

“Instead of me looking for apartments, looking for housing, instead of giving somebody $1,500 every month, why don’t I turn this bus into a place?” Johnson thought to herself.

Miracle Johnson, 8, helps clean up as part of the initial phase of remodeling the bus her mother bought on a whim a few years ago.

Miracle Johnson, 8, helps clean up as part of the initial phase of remodeling the bus her mother bought on a whim a few years ago.

That’s what ultimately led her to Tiny House in My Backyard, an organization run by undergraduate and graduate students at UC Berkeley who specialize in designing and building affordable, sustainable tiny houses.

Johnson had purchased the bus, a 2001 Blue Bird Coach, on a whim for $6,500. It became a storage place for her family’s belongings after she was told she and her two children had to move out of their house in Vallejo.

In searching for a new place to live, Johnson discovered that Richmond, where she’d grown up, was no longer, as it once was, the most affordable place to live in the Bay Area. Rents were now suddenly out of her reach. So for the past two years, she and her children, David Justice, 11, and Miracle, 8, shuttled between homeless shelters, friends’ houses and, sometimes, storefronts.

David Justice Johnson, 11, plays video games in a car where his dog stays when the family is at a shelter.

David Justice Johnson, 11, plays video games in a car where his dog stays when the family is at a shelter.

She kept the bus parked in an RV park in Vallejo. It was during trips to retrieve belongings that the idea emerged to turn her Blue Bird into a home that she and her kids could call their own. From her past work as a painter, construction worker and school bus driver, Johnson knew a bus could work well as a tiny house.

She floated the idea among her friends and people who worked at the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, a family shelter where the family had stayed for a number of months. Initially, her idea was met with skepticism.

“People told me that it was not realistic to want to even live on a bus,” Johnson said.

But Kathleen Sullivan, the executive director of the interfaith program, saw the potential and connected her to the students at Tiny House in My Backyard.

The students went all in on the project they now call Constance’s Bus.

“Tiny houses are just a great solution for certain types of homelessness because they are cheap to build, you can build them fast, and then you can place them in places where you can’t build apartment complexes,” said project manager Shane Wright. “Right now, we are starting out building Constance’s Bus, making one family an amazing house.”

Wright, a senior studying environmental economics and policy, knows the benefits of living in a tiny house. He’s been living in one he built himself to save money that would otherwise be going to rent while he completes his degree.