Thinking (very) small to give dream houses to the homeless

by April 1, 2015 5:00AM ET

California-based artist Greg Kloehn builds rolling houses out of scraps for homeless people, some smaller than a car

Johnny lives in Oakland, in a house built by Greg Kloehn. His house was partially destroyed in a fire and Johnny, who is deaf, remodeled it and painted it himself.
Nathan Weyland

OAKLAND, Calif. — Greg Kloehn builds homes. The California-based artist's best work yet is a classic San Francisco Victorian, complete with a round turret, bay window, and ornate columns framing the small front door. The only catch? The house is 8 feet long, 5 feet wide, 6 feet tall, and constructed from refuse. The columns are carved from two bed posts, and its pitched roof is shingled with rainproof silver coffee bags.

But for new parents Dee and Brian, a young homeless couple dealing with a health crisis, the house is perfect.

Kloehn — pronounced like plane — has built about 30 miniature rolling houses from trash collected in Oakland, each one donated to homeless individuals. After an exhibit of his work at San Francisco art and cultures center SOMArts ended, he offered three of them to people living under the freeway outside the venue. A young man approached and said his sick girlfriend needed a better shelter. When Kloehn helped Brian, 28, roll the house over to Dee, 26, she burst into tears when Kloehn explained that the ornate home was a gift.

The Victorian’s safety and added comfort are critical for Dee. She was informed by doctors of a likely leukemia diagnosis when blood clotting complications arose during the birth of their daughter — who lives with Brian’s relatives — a week before she met Kloehn. She said if she and Brian relocate, they would give the Victorian to another person surviving on the streets of San Francisco. Their last names were omitted for privacy reasons.

“Everything happens for a reason, and we couldn’t have met Greg at a more necessary time,” Dee said with teary eyes. 

Kloehn’s homes commonly migrate from one person to another after he donates them, which is how 51-year-old DL — short for the street name “Don’t Lie" he gave to both Al Jazeera America and Kloehn — acquired his windowed home, just big enough for him to lie down and sit up in. Though smaller than the neighboring Victorian, DL said his home allows him to “get in touch with normalcy.”

Dee lives with her boyfriend Brian in a house built by Greg Kloehn in San Francisco. She has been homeless there for about five years.
Nathan Weyland

“This is like a hug!” Berkeley resident Elenna Rubin Goodman said as she sat cross-legged inside a tiny house under construction at the Kloehn’s West Oakland studio. “It gives you containment, which you don’t have on the street. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Goodman was one of two people to stop by that morning inquiring if Kloehn was “the Tiny House Guy.” While Goodman was simply curious, Kloehn’s other visitor, general contractor Garner McAleer, offered Kloehn his unused construction materials.

Kloehn has been experimenting in miniature structures since 2009, including a studio apartment he built inside a dumpster, which he uses as his summer home in Brooklyn, New York. The idea to build houses from refuse, however, was inspired by the homeless themselves.

“I was just looking at all the structures that homeless people would make,” Kloehn explained. “It got me looking at their lives: How they’re treated, how they get by, what they live off of. I kind of became enamored by that.”

“It’s a study in life and ‘What’s a home?’ too,” he said. “That was a big question I was asking: What does it take to make a home? … You think of homelessness: Was that around 5,000 years ago? Would you be considered homeless, or could you just make a home? Private property has changed a lot.”

After completing his first tiny house, Kloehn was visited by Sheila Williams, a familiar face around his neighborhood who has been homeless for 35 years. Knowing Kloehn was always willing to help out, Sheila asked if he could spare a tarp so she and her husband, Oscar Williams, 70, could weather-proof their tent. Kloehn told her to return the next day for something better than a tarp. When they did, he handed them the keys to the tiny home as well as a bottle of champagne.

Sheila, 54, a Native American from Yakima, Washington, has assumed the role of den mother for about a dozen people now living in Kloehn houses along Oakland’s Wood Street near the Emeryville border. Nestled amid freeway overpasses, speeding cars, bustling railroads, and trash compacting centers, the tight-knit community has survived adversity — and even attacks.

Sheila’s first home had to be replaced shortly after Kloehn donated it. A passing transient burned the tiny structure down when Oscar refused to share his house — and wife of over 20 years — with the stranger. An arsonist also attacked another tiny home on Wood Street that belonged to perhaps the group’s most vulnerable member, Johnny Sastini, who is deaf.

Sheila, holding Bella, has been homeless for 35 years. Originally from Yakima, Washington, she has been staying with her husband Oscar on Wood Street in Oakland for five years, in a house built by Greg Kloehn.
Nathan Weyland

Sastini, 59, can neither hear nor speak. He can read lips, and communicates through hand motions or by writing in a notebook. The tiny house Kloehn gave him originally came with a wall-mounted fish tank visible from both inside and outside the house. When an unknown attacker set Sastini's house ablaze, Sheila quickly saved it by smashing the tank.

After the fire, Sastini began repeatedly painting his house with different murals — the Bay Bridge spanning one side wall, shimmering butterflies fluttering up his front door — in the hope that people would think his home is too beautiful to destroy. He said that local police, who are aware of his auditory and vocal limitations, also help protect his home by checking on it while he works sorting metal at an alloy recycling center.

Near the home of Sheila and South Africa-born Oscar is the tiny home of another couple, 47-year-old Terry Kelly and his girlfriend Teresa Morris, who was buzzing with excitement the weekend before her 50th birthday on March 25.

The members of the Wood Street community sometimes come together, especially on occasions such as birthdays, for barbecues using charcoal briquettes supplied by Sheila, who also oversees camp cleanliness to maintain good relations with the police. Because their houses are clearly semi-permanent structures, each resident’s bagged trash is now simply collected by trash haulers instead of their whole shelter being swept away as garbage.

Kelly has held jobs with two different Oakland homeless programs ended by Alameda County funding cuts. The first, Howie Harp Multi-Service Center, provided showers, laundry, meals and grocery distribution, and educational programs, but was shuttered in 2010. Terry’s next employer, Traveler’s Aid Society, lost its lease in 2011.

In 2013, the most recent data available, Alameda County estimated more than 4,200 people were homeless on any given night. East Oakland Community Project Executive Director Wendy Jackson estimates that the actual number is at least 2.5 to 3 times higher, however, because the county’s calculus doesn’t account for people in shelters, hospitals and jails.

Greg Kloehn in his studio in Oakland.
Nathan Weyland

Laverne, 59, has her own Kloehn house parked a few streets away, but occasionally stays on Wood Street at her boyfriend June Wilson’s house, 67. She became homeless three years ago when she left a husband who mistreated her.

Laverne is a graduate of a prestigious East Coast university who still dreamily recalls three months spent traveling through Europe just before she graduated. Her five grown children know where to find her, but have agreed to keep her location and circumstances a secret from their father for her own protection, which is also why she withheld her last name from Al Jazeera America.

Laverne expressed a sentiment echoed by many people living in Kloehn’s homes: Homelessness can happen to absolutely anyone, even people who least expect it.

“All this stuff out here can happen to anybody … no matter what your color is, where you live, or anything,” Laverne said.