Homelessness has long been a staple of American cities, as heartbreaking and gut wrenching of a notion as that is. I can’t remember a time where I strolled through even a small city without being panhandled for a little change. As uncomfortable as those scenarios can be (ever since I’ve realized peanut butter regularly costs around six dollars, I feel a little queasy about giving money to strangers), it’s definitely an issue that tugs at the heartstrings. Just a few months ago, I accidentally left my car unlocked only to wake up to my passenger seat so far back that either a) I was preparing for an outer space takeoff that slipped my mind or b) it served as a cot for a homeless person overnight. Even though they stole my bag of stocking stuffers, I secretly hoped they would be able to make ends meet with my collection of bacon bandages, peach rings and socks. Luckily, there are people out there who are deliberately working towards finding places to sleep (and more) for the homeless.
One of the most interesting project initiatives that has come about in the last few years is the “Homeless Homes Project”. California-based artist Gregory Kloehn started the project. Before Kloehn started this unique venture, he was regularly sculpting expensive pieces for wealthy art collectors. After some time as an artist, Kloehn came to the realization that his pricy sculptures were just sitting in wealthy people’s homes. It was then that the artist decided he needed to work towards making a meaningful change. Initally, Kloehn was inspired by the home environmental movement and began building and selling non-traditional houses in the form of mobile shelters for people in need.
The catch? Kloehn builds all of the shelters out of trash. His homes are only about the size of a sofa, but often come with comfort luxuries such as a pitched roof to keep out the rain and wheels that allow the home to be mobile. Kloehn mostly uses illegally dumped trash that has piled up in the streets of a semi-industrial area, called West Oakland.
Not convinced that a house made of banana peels and chewed bubble gum could be considered ‘home’? Not to worry. Kloehn is creative in his uses. He has frequently used discarded wood pallets for a foundation, with extras such as windows, mirrors and cup holders. Several of the completed homes have been insulated using discarded pizza delivery bags.
Kloehn has even gone so far as to live in a tiny structure himself. In 2011, he was living in New York City in a home made from a steel dumpster. At the time, he had put about $4,000 into his 6-feet by 6-feet living quarters (imagine the size of a camping tent). The artist revealed to the media that he had the space shipped from Oakland to New York City and stays there with his wife whenever they’re in town. Kudos to that woman for fitting her shoes, body, and man into a 6 ft x 6 ft space.
As Kloehn’s concept began to spread via word of mouth, he found himself inundated with people willing to help the cause. Between money donations, material donations, work-space, and builders lending a hand, the community was behind him in full force.Wonder, a homeless woman Kloehn had known for several years, was delighted with her new humble abode. Wonder previously occupied a tarp draped over a couch. When she saw her new home, she said “this is the best home I’ve had in five years.”
Homeless people throughout Oakland appreciated the 43-year old artist’s work. Beyond the Homeless Homes Project, Kloehn sells homes, bars, and restaurants made of shipping containers, many of which have ended up in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, New York.
“I kind of think if you’re putting so much effort into something it would be nice if it did something”, the artist said when asked to speak further regarding his inspiration. Since the project gained traction in early 2014, Kloehn has simplified his process to be able to craft homes quicker and using less materials. Although he has no plans to provide housing for Oakland’s entirety of homeless people, he also has no plans to stop building (and giving). He has self-published a book titled “Homeless Architecture” that shares observations of the homeless shanties he has seen in his neighborhood.
Reading about Kloehn and his creative approach at giving back left me with some serious guilt. I mean, I wish I could turn my trash into something cool. While I’m caught up trying to find excuses for why I missed what was supposed to be a “nothing but net” trashcan shot (frequently used: the air conditioning blew it the wrong way), it is thrilling to know that others see potential in what has been trashed.