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Tiny houses give homeless a foothold

Sam Harnett Mar 17, 2015
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On a given night, over half a million people in the U.S. are out on the streets. That statistic comes from the federal government’s point-in-time count last year.

In Oakland, California, carpenter Greg Kloehn is trying to help those around him without a place to live. His project is a small one — tiny to be exact.

We’re driving in Kloehn’s beat-up van through North Oakland’s industrial landscape, looking for building materials. He pulls over at a pile of construction debris from an old Victorian house. We get out and he picks up a few old two-by-fours from the heap. “These are what I like”, he says.

Kloehn turns trash into tiny houses. He’s made about 30 so far. They’re rectangular structures, big enough to sleep in, but not stand in. Kloehn builds them on wheels, so they’re mobile. Then he gives them to people without homes, like Gregory Clinton.

Clinton’s regular-sized house was foreclosed on ten years ago. Now he lives below a highway in a community of people with Kloehn’s tiny houses. Clinton calls them “street homes.”

The houses are lined up like a wagon train, each made of different objects—old wood studs, futon frames, plywood. Some have glass refrigerator shelves for windows. One has a washing machine top for a door. The houses are a variety of colors, whatever paint Kloehn could find dumped around Oakland.

Clinton says Kloehn has inspired him to improve his tiny home. He built a little addition and has decorated. He used pieces of hard, white plastic to hide the wheels so his house looks more like a permanent residence than a mobile home.

Outside, Clinton has plants and artwork: a print of Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace at Night.” He didn’t know it was so famous.

“I love that one,” he says. “See the little people and the stuff. It’s got everyone coming out to eat at the cafe. It’s nice.”

Clinton’s neighbor, Sheila Williams says her tiny house is much better than living in a tent. “I feel a lot safer,” she says, “When you live in a tent you get sick when it rains in the winter time. Your shoes get wet and you have to stuff them with paper or change your socks. And the rats come in and get all over you.”

Williams says this is her first home in 32 years. She’s proud of it. In the back, she points out a little mailbox with a red flag. It says “no soliciting” on the side.

While living in her tiny home, Williams has been able to meet with a case worker and is scheduled to move into an apartment soon. She plans to give the tiny house away to her neighbor, who lives in a tent and has breast cancer.

These tiny homes are not going to solve homelessness says Kloehn. But he says they give people a little more stability so they can work on getting off the street.

Back at his workshop, Kloehn shows me a new house he’s finished up. It’s all ready to go, he just has to decide who will get it. That’s hard to do, he says. The demand these days is high.

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