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.
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’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.
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’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.”
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.