Others’ trash turns into tiny houses in Oakland

George Clinton stands next to his house built by Greg Kloehn in Oakland.
George Clinton stands next to his house built by Greg Kloehn in Oakland.

OAKLAND – A phone call in the middle of the night usually means one thing to Gregory Kloehn: Someone is alerting him to a fresh pile of junk dumped in his neighborhood.

Come morning, he will climb in his truck and scour prime dumping spots, seeking material for his latest project, building tiny homes for the homeless out of things other people throw away.

“I didn’t set out to save the homeless,” said Kloehn, who has built and given away 25 of the minidomiciles on wheels, what he now calls the Homeless Homes Project.

“I am inspired by them. I was taking my skills and their source of materials and combining them.”

The homes, painted in various hues, fashioned from discarded flooring, refrigerator parts, plastic bins, headboards, broken chairs, even fish tanks, are mostly located near his artist workshop and home in a gritty western section of the city. Many sit on a small industrial road near the train tracks, in what has become an unusual nomadic housing site.

“It’s a lot safer and warmer than the street,” said Sheila Williams, who had been homeless for 20 years when Kloehn offered her the first house he built about two years ago.

Someone set it on fire and Williams – who was inside but escaped without injury – now lives in another home with her husband Oscar Young and their dachshund Bella.

Pale yellow, surrounded by coolers, a grill and a shopping cart filled with possessions that won’t fit inside, the house measures about three by seven feet. In a city where rents and home prices have skyrocketed, as they have across the bay in San Francisco, the price was a rarity – free.

But Kloehn didn’t set out to make any political or symbolic statement. As long as he can remember, he loved building things. At first, growing up in Denver, it was forts. After getting his undergraduate degree at Evergreen State College, then attending California College of Arts and Crafts (now called California College of the Arts), he had a fantasy of building an “art utopia” in Oakland, filled with artist friends.

He bought a condemned building with a partner and went to work putting up a new one. Financially it was more trouble than he’d expected. “I was young and dumb and thought I could get my friends, some beer and some hammers and build something,” he said. “You realize pretty quickly it doesn’t happen that way.”

In the end, he built seven condos on the site and sold all except one, where he now lives with his wife, a performance artist and teacher, and two kids, 13 and 10.

One of his first notable creations was a dumpster home. Friends posted a YouTube video of the metal homestead that drew national attention.

Kloehn appeared on the Rachael Ray show, which paid for the dumpster to be towed to the East Coast. It now sits on the grounds of an art foundation in Brooklyn, where he spends the summer working and demonstrating what can be done with discarded things.

The rest of the year he spends in Oakland satisfying his curiosity about different kinds of homes. He has studied nomadic housing in other parts of the world and documented the shelters made by homeless in his own neighborhood.

Using his iPhone, he’s photographed some of the makeshift creations built from cardboard and tarps. Some homeless were annoyed when he came around, but others got to know him as he watched their constant battle to stay housed.

City workers would come around periodically and clear away what they’d accumulated. He took pictures of the next shelters they built.

“People had to rebuild almost every month,” he said. “I was interested in that process and I began to see them differently. All this talk about living green and here these people are, no Priuses. This whole tribe is living among us, living from the fruits of our urban jungle.”

He decided he’d try and follow their ingenuity and build a home in one week, spending only $40 and using what he found outside recycling businesses and at dumping spots near him. It sat in his studio, collecting dust, until a rainy night when a woman came by and asked if he had a spare tarp.

“I said no and good luck,’’ he said. “But then I saw the home and thought what am I doing with this? I told her to come and get it. She looked at me dumbfounded.”

The next day Sheila Williams and her husband showed up. Kloehn handed them the key and a bottle of champagne.

Then he started building others. While each home looks different, Kloehn begins by making a wheeled platform. Then he builds walls with whatever he has on hand, followed by windows and other embellishments.

He also leads demonstration workshops that have been attended by activists from the Occupy movement and affluent residents of Orinda. He has given away a few homes in San Francisco, including his most elaborate, a tiny Victorian complete with turrets and a bay window.

So far there has been no official city reaction.

“We are in a gray area,” he said. “It’s a cart and not a permanent structure and there is no motor so they don’t have to register with the DMV.”

When he drives down the street where many of his creations are parked, the owners wave and come to talk.

“I used to have a tent and now I get up and I do things,” said George Clinton, a handyman and carpenter who has added a large window, potted plants and doubled the space of his home. “It motivates me to keep going.”

Williams said the owners do their best to keep the area around the homes neat and safe. She would like to add a metal gate to her front door to protect against intruders, who have tried to break in.

“Some people say this is just a Band-Aid,” said Kloehn. “I’m not saying this is a solution to homelessness, but it’s more like a tourniquet. These people are under trauma. If you all of a sudden have a place where you are dry, safe from rats and predators, it’s a big change.”

Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.

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