Oakland home-builder constructs recycled shelters for homeless


Jenise Kearney

Shortly after moving to West Oakland, Kloehn started building shelters for the homeless.

Gregory Kloehn, a handyman with a drill, takes recycled trash and turns it into homes.  The Oakland homebuilder has adopted building style techniques from the homeless to master his efforts in building unique mini-sized portable homes for the homeless in West Oakland, Calif.

Kloehn does not sell these homes; he strictly gives them away to the homeless.

Kloehn had already built homes out of pallets from shipping containers and dumpsters after graduating college.  After first moving to West Oakland, he started thinking about building different structures.  How else could he build and style homes?  What type of items could he use?  How could he shape things?

“I started looking at the homeless people,” said Kloehn. “We call them homeless but they are making little structures to live in.”

He saw how the homeless used and arranged garbage and recycled materials.  He wanted to build more things, but with limited money he needed an alternative idea.

So he decided that he wanted to use what the homeless were using to build structures.  He grabbed junk off the streets to bring back to his studio to get to work.  This was his project and challenge to build homes out of these types of materials.

Kloehn originally thought he could complete a home in a day, “…it didn’t work.  It took me a lot longer,” he stated.  “A week later I had a home and it was sitting here.  I did not know what to do with it.”

The finished home, he said, rested in his studio for about five months.

One day a homeless woman approached him about a tarp.  He told her he did not have one.

“I have a home,” he said.  The woman was in utter shock.  She looked at him oddly and said, “What do you mean a home?”

Kloehn told the woman to come back and he would have the home accessible for her the following day.

This is when the light bulb lit and the puzzle pieces started to come together, he said.  He realized that he should use the junk he was finding on the streets to create homes for the homeless.

“There are different levels of homeless,” he stated. Kloehn felt if he could build these homes, the best thing he could do was give them away to people in need.

“The cost to me isn’t that much, maybe $30-40 dollars in each home for screws and tacks.  The rest of the stuff is from the streets,” he said.  It takes him three to four days to finish and polish these homes.  He dedicates two days out of his week to work on this project.

“In West and East Oakland there are some hot spots, as well as the big industry companies where I can get pallets from,” he stated. Other materials come from CASS recycling company, which may include parts from refrigerators, water heaters, fencing, old chairs, and furniture.

Over a two-week period Kloehn collects roughly about 1,000 pounds of recyclable material.  He collects or comes across trash just about every day.

After he gets his morning coffee, he scavenges the streets of Oakland to find more dumped material.  He has mounds of supplies in his studio from doing contract work over the years.

He drives around different areas of Oakland collecting and finding what he needs to build these homes. Kloehn says that East Oakland and Fruitvale along with industrial areas where there is not much housing are the best places to collect dumped recyclable material.

“There are at least 100 to 150 homeless people living on the streets,” he says in a 5-10 block radius from his studio.  Most of the homeless people that he helps live right across the street from his studio.  He has built relationships with them for over 10 years.

The homeless community in this area is tight knit.  Kloehn says, “They look after one another.”  The homeless have taught him to be more appreciative of the things he has in his life, and they also have much respect for him.

“They love these homes; it really kind of changes their lives. It’s something that is stable and [is] theirs,” Kloehn said.

His latest project is working on a bigger sized home for a homeless woman named Kelly.  He has made 12 of these mini portable homes, and plans to make more with the help of volunteers. A man he knows with a bigger studio has offered to work on these homes as well.

He feels good about making these homes and giving them away.  “I wish more people would do it, I think there [are] a lot of people that want to do it but they don’t know how,” Kloehn says.

Homes like this give homeless people independence, freedom, and space versus shelters with restrictions.  They follow their own rules in the presence of their homes. “The people around here are not looking for shelters,” he said.

Kloehn has had no interaction with police, city officials and community leaders. “My guess is they prefer I didn’t do it,” he says.  He believes the question of public safety and encroachment could arise.

“Each home is unique each home is different, what I’m doing is not rocket science,” Kloehn states.  With basic construction skills and knowledge anyone can build these homes if they know what components to use.  He would like to expand this project to other cities. “It would be nice, I have received offers from San Jose, Davis, Stockton, New York, and Cincinnati,” he says.

Kloehn would like to host workshops and create YouTube videos along with ‘how to books’ to share with the public.  This project would not work in every city, he said.  It works best in vacant areas where there are fewer people.

He is always accepting volunteers and donations to his project.  He takes donations on PayPal and has material drop off points.  A nonprofit organization may be in the works, but as of right now he is not sure.

“I just like to make things,” he says. He spends his extra time observing and studying, along with taking pictures on his iPhone of how the homeless provide and create shelter for themselves.  He uses those images to make picture books, as an architectural guide that he can reference when building these homes.

“I just ripped the page out of their book; I looked how they were building stuff and thought, ‘hey now that’s a cool idea.’” said Kloehn. “For a little amount of effort you can make a big change.”

Kloehn is from Denver, Colo.  He attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. for two years before dropping out and moving to Amsterdam.  This is where he discovered and showed interest in the building industry.

Kloehn “the little man on the totem pole” as he would call himself, worked for a firm that would design things for industrial artists.  It was here he got his introduction to working with wood and metal.  This is what he considered to be “sweep up jobs,” but it was a good way for him to become familiar with certain materials.

Kloehn moved back to the states in 1995 where he applied to California College of Arts and Crafts. This was the era in Kloehn’s life where he was still trying to figure out what he was destined to do in life.

Not too long after, his grandmother passed away and he inherited $80,000 dollars.  He thought he could live the rest of his life off that money. “I soon realized that I couldn’t,” he said.  So he went into the housing business.

He spends his extra time observing and studying, along with taking pictures on his iPhone of how the homeless provide and create shelter for themselves.  He uses those images to make picture books, as an architectural guide that he can reference when building these homes.