OAKLAND -- Gregory Kloehn can turn just about anything into a home.
The Oakland artist spends his summers in Brooklyn living in a dumpster he outfitted with granite countertops, hardwood floors, a rooftop deck, plumbing and a barbecue grill.
But his proudest creations are even cozier structures that he gives to homeless people in his neighborhood.
Kloehn's "little homeless homes" are about the size of a sofa, but they come with a pitched roof to keep out the rain and wheels so recipients can roll them around town.
So far Kloehn has built 10 of the tiny houses using mostly illegally dumped trash that piles up on the streets in a semi-industrial section of West Oakland. The foundation is usually discarded wood pallets to which Kloehn will add accouterments such as windows, a mirror and a cup holder. Several homes are insulated with discarded pizza delivery bags.
Wonder, a homeless woman Kloehn has known for several years, parked her new house on the sidewalk next to her old home, which consisted primarily of a tarp draped over a couch.
"This is the best home I've had in five years," Wonder said as she opened the front door -- made from a discarded picnic table -- to reveal the pizza bag insulation. "It gets real hot in here," she said.
All the homes have gotten rave reviews. "They say this is just night and day, especially when it rains," Kloehn said. "Once your mattress gets wet, it's just terrible."
Kloehn, a 43-year-old transplant from Denver, is a sculptor who "got on a housing kick" after building his five-unit live-work condominium complex from scratch.
Inspired by the small home environmental movement, Kloehn started making fully functioning houses out of shipping containers. He soon moved on to dumpsters. "Then I just started grabbing garbage and making homes out of that," he said.
Kloehn's fascination with nontraditional homes helps support his wife and two children. While he gives away the homeless houses, he sells homes, bars and restaurants that he makes from shipping containers, many of which reside in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.
"Before I was all about sculpture, but I realized it just sits there. And you're just peddling it to rich people," he said. "I kind of think if you're putting so much effort into something it would be nice if it did something."
As Kloehn delved deeper into the essence of a home, he began studying the homeless shanties in his neighborhood. He self-published a book titled "Homeless Architecture" and sometimes grabbed his drill to help local homeless people secure their shelters against the elements.
"I admire them for how they build," he said. "When you think about it, they are really living green. They're going around recycling all day and then they scrape stuff from the street to make a home on a piece of property that no one really cares about."
But Kloehn never made the connection that his tiny houses could help the homeless until a homeless couple came by his house last year and asked him for a tarp. Kloehn could only offer them what he had in his studio -- a tiny wooden structure equipped with a built-in kitchen, water tank and a small trap for human waste.
"I had this home sitting right here," Kloehn said. "I thought, 'Why am I keeping it?'"
Over the past year, Kloehn has further simplified his design so he can make a home out of five pallets. Each home takes two to three days to make.
Most of the homes can be found on the streets of West Oakland although a few have not fared well. The home Kloehn gave to the couple seeking the tarp was firebombed. No one was injured, he said. Another home was stolen. And one recipient sold his home for $80. It's now being used as a doghouse, Kloehn said.
Oakland spokeswoman Karen Boyd said that to her knowledge the tiny homes had not registered on the city's radar. Oakland supports many types of homes for people suffering from the housing shortage, she said. But city officials would need to discuss whether the homes present encroachment or other policy issues.
Kloehn has no plans to build houses for all of Oakland's homeless. But he doesn't intend to stop anytime soon. He's working on new designs, including a geodesic dome and a chuck wagon.
He'd also like to start doing weekend workshops to teach others how to make them. "A lot of people who hear about what I'm doing want to get involved," he said. "Maybe we meet someplace and put a couple homes together."
Contact Matthew Artz at 510-208-6435
To donate materials or inquire about potential volunteer opportunities, contact Gregory Kloehn at email@example.com.