Artist and designer Gregory Kloehn sits in the doorway of his latest tiny house, which he calls the Chuckwagon. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Artist and designer Gregory Kloehn sits in the doorway of his latest tiny house, which he calls the Chuckwagon. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Oakland artist and designer Gregory Kloehn was thrust into the national spotlight in 2011, when he famously transformed a dumpster into a home. Kloehn is again working with tiny structures, but now he’s building them from found materials, and he’s donating the finished structures to homeless people.

The homes, all built on wheels, range in size from small boxes that are just big enough to sleep in, to larger structures that you can stand up in. Despite the attention, Kloehn downplays what he’s doing, arguing that his structures are just an upgrade on the many lean-tos and improvised structures homeless people make for themselves.

“I just ripped a page from the homeless person’s book, and then took my basic construction skills, and came up with something,” he said.

The Chuckwagon is one of the largest structures Kloehn has made for homeless people. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
The Chuckwagon is one of the largest structures Kloehn has made for homeless people. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

It all started about two years ago, when Kloehn was working on a self-published book about homeless shelters. He walked around Oakland, observing the makeshift lean-tos and shelters homeless people had created, and he documented them with iPhone photos.

“I became enamored of them,” he said, while flipping through the photos. So he gathered some materials and got to work building a structure of his own, to see if he could build a home from found materials for no money. (He actually ended up spending about $40 on that home.) Since then, Kloehn has built about 10 tiny homes for homeless people, and he’s ramping up his operation.

Kloehn fits a wooden gutter on the exterior of a tiny house he refers to as the 'Uni-bomber Shack.' (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Kloehn fits a wooden gutter on the exterior of a tiny house he refers to as the ‘Uni-bomber Shack.’ (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Kloehn’s studio is located near West Oakland’s Alliance Recycling Center, a popular place for homeless people to return cans for the deposit. Homeless people with shopping carts full of cans — and their possessions — are a common sight in the neighborhood. Several of his structures can be seen throughout the neighborhood. “Sometimes they don’t make it very far,” he says.

Kloehn, who has worked as a sculptor, says it’s rewarding to make functional objects that are made to be lived in.

“Every one is unique, and every one is different, and every one offers a different challenge,” he says. And because he’s working with found materials and there is no pressure to recoup his costs, he has the freedom to experiment. “For me, this is exciting,” he says.

A pair of tiny houses are currently occupied down the street from Kloehn's West Oakland studio. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
A pair of tiny houses are currently occupied down the street from Kloehn’s West Oakland studio. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Kloehn spends a lot of time building the structures, but it doesn’t cost him very much. “I’ll buy gas to drive around, and I’ll buy screws,” he says. But most of the materials come from industrial waste and illegal dump sites around Oakland. He also finds a lot of paint that is illegally dumped in Oakland alleys. He applies several coats of that found paint to his structures so they hold up in the elements.

“Within a week I can find enough materials for a home — or maybe even two homes,” he says.

Kloehn works on his newest tiny house, which is made mostly from old beds. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Kloehn works on his newest tiny house, which is made mostly from old beds. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Kloehn’s latest structure is going to be made almost entirely from beds. Most of the home’s frame is made from backboards, and he plans to use a matching triangular headboard and footboard set as the support for a pitched roof. “I let my materials dictate the size and shape of the homes,” Kloehn says. “The challenge is for you to make it work.”

Kloehn shows off sketches of some of his previous tiny homes. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)
Kloehn shows off sketches of some of his previous tiny homes. (Mark Andrew Boyer/KQED)

Since word has gotten out about Kloehn’s tiny homes, he’s been getting more volunteers to help build them. And he’s been invited to hold workshops up the coast in Portland, in Boston, and in South Africa. Soon, he’ll be ramping up his operations and moving to a bigger work space at American Steel Studios in West Oakland. But even as he produces more homes, Kloehn acknowledges that he isn’t making much of a dent in the Bay Area’s homeless problem.

“It’s not like I’m trying to end homelessness,” he says. But he’s providing a few people who have no homes a more comfortable place to lay their heads.

Gregory Kloehn's tiny houses for homeless people

  • bulldog

    is there way to donate materials?

    • Leslie Nope

      Bulldog, I live in this area and there are SOOO many materials and fragments of materials out here.

      • Mike

        Yes, but it would make sense for a fund to be set up so that Mr. Kloehn need not drive all over the city to find materials. He is a professional with a practice, and to save him time and money, it would be useful that he could go to Home Depot or a ReStore to buy what he needs. He might be on the verge of starting a Habitat for the street homeless.

        • lindaTX

          what about volunteers to go around and gather materials for him? I used to go about the city and find lots of old brick, cement blocks, broken cement left in empty lots all over the place, which I brought home and recycled for my garden. Yes, there is a LOT of material out there. Free. Make use of it…

  • Mike

    There’s info on his Facebook page about how to donate materials, funds, as well as assist in his studio building homes. https://www.facebook.com/gregorylincoln.kloehn

  • Paula

    Just Pray the State doesn’t step in and complain . May God Bless this man,and what he’s doing for the homeless.

  • Sherry Robinson

    it is good to see this and to see the people below in comments who want to help..kudos to you all..

  • KittyP

    The wheels are a great feature for portability, especially when considering that the problem is the homeless have no where to park their homes. They will have to be on the constant move to avoid citations. How practical is that? I love this idea, and kudos to Kloehn for caring, but he needs to think about the end game. He needs to partner with someone that can donate an empty lot and some porta- potties and a water source, preferably in an industrial area where neighbors won’t worry or complain. (google Santa Rosa, where the kind community donated an empty lot for homeless who live in their cars to park – the neighbors are in an outrage!) Also, they need to enlist the homeless recipients as “trustees” to ensure the camp stays clean and tidy, again, so people don’t complain and the encampments remain a safe place to live.

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