By Brendan O'Brien
MADISON, Wisconsin (Reuters) - After surviving two long, cold Wisconsin winters on the streets, Betty Ybarra traded freezing park benches and tents for a tiny house made of recycled wood she helped build herself.
Her 99-square-foot home, which boasts flower window boxes, was built by volunteers of the Occupy Madison group, as part of about a half dozen similar projects around the United States, including in New York and Texas, to shelter the homeless.
"We can check on our flowers and we can now try to live a normal life," said Ybarra, 49, who shares her new home with her friend Chris Derrick, 55, who had also been homeless.
Madison, Wisconsin's capital and a city of 250,000, regularly makes national lists of best places to live, but its homeless population increased by 7 percent over the last four years to about 3,370.
The Madison village plan was born two years ago in a "put up or shut up moment" when the Occupy Madison demonstrations against economic inequality ended, and as similar efforts started in other parts of the country.
In Newfield, New York, organizers plan 14 to 18 tiny houses on private land with private donations. In Austin, Texas, the plan is to build a village of tiny houses and small shelters for 200 people on 27 acres.
The Madison plan might be narrower in scope, with nine tiny homes planned so far, but organizers say a retail store and gardens on the site of a former auto repair shop will bring a sense of safety and community.
"The village will bring dignity. We will have a fence and we will have community," organizer Trina Clemente said.
The house Ybarra and Derrick moved into on Christmas Eve was the first and volunteers are finishing two more. All have a sink and a composting toilet, and are heated using propane and solar panels.
"It means shelter and security. Living in a tiny house is life changing," said Ybarra, who explained she ended up on the streets after fleeing an abusive relationship.
The interior is just big enough for a full bed, a half-circle table against a wall, microwave and shelf. Wooden plaques Ybarra painted with the words "Peace," Love" and "Occupy" decorate the walls.
"We built this with our hands, our hearts and our friends," Derrick said, standing on the small triangular front porch of his abode enjoying a cup of coffee.
Steve Berg at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said tiny house projects such as the one in Madison might be an effective way to shelter the homeless, who deal with addiction and mental illness, if they have access to services and support.
"The essential element is a stable residence and any kind of a network of supports," said Berg, vice president for programs and policy for the organization.
Much of the homelessness in the United States is caused by economic crises and can be addressed by short-term financial and housing assistance, Berg said.
The Madison group has received more than $85,000 in donations, partly through crowd-sourcing for the houses, which cost $5,000 each in materials. It hopes eventually to build a village of 30 tiny houses.
"Sky's the limit. The real issue here is that it is changing people's lives and giving people self-worth," organizer Brenda Konkel said.
For Ybarra a tiny house means much-needed normalcy after many nights sleeping on cardboard.
"It's cozy," she added.
(Editing by David Bailey Editing by Andre Grenon)