Berkeley Artist Creates Mobile Homes for the Homeless

By Johanna Staples-Ager, Guest contributor

If you walk past all the busy shoppers at the Emeryville Target, go all the way to the left,  and turn further left onto a pothole-riddled, asphalt road underneath the freeway overpass, you’ll get to Wood Street. An odd no-man’s-land between areas owned by Oakland, Emeryville, and Caltrans, it houses a substantial homeless encampment. This encampment contains the usual structures made out of tarps, tents, and various trash such as shipping pallets. However, dotted between these structures are tiny mobile houses: walls, waterproof roof, wheels, windows, paint job and all. Upon further inspection, some of the waterproof roofs are made out of discarded aluminum coffee packets, the windows out of old washing machine doors. A local artist, Gregory Kloehn, has been making these houses and giving them to homeless people he knows since 2009. Inspired by the “hunter-gatherer” building techniques of the homeless themselves, he decided to try his hand at making recycled structures himself.

“I wish that I could say that I set out to house the homeless, but my motivation was not so lofty. At the time, I was working on a book about Homeless Architecture and following the various structures that are created by people living on the streets,” said Kloehn. “I quickly became enamored by their resourcefulness to take objects found on the street and create homes and a livelihood from them.”

Kloehn took some of these materials back to his studio and began work on putting them together in a more permanent fashion than the homeless did.

“After about a week of collecting and building, I had a 21st century hunter/gatherer home, built from the discarded fruits of the urban jungle,” he said.

The newly furnished home sat in Kloehn’s studio for several months. But one stormy night, a homeless woman named Charlene that he had known for ten years stopped by, asking for a tarp. Kloehn told her he didn’t have a tarp and went back inside. But just then, the home caught his eye. He ran back outside and told her that tomorrow he would have a home for her. The next day, Charlene came back with her husband Oscar. He handed them a set of keys and a bottle of champagne and watched them wheel it down the street.  

“It felt so good that I started making another one that same day,” said Kloehn.

His art makes other people feel good as well.

“Gregory is using art to clean up the community while helping the homeless get shelter.

I think it is incredibly inspiring to be able to help so many people by creating art,” said Emma Surasky-Dierauf, Berkeley High School freshman, who learned about him by taking art classes from his wife.

The houses provide more than just a reliable shelter for the homeless. Take, for example, Laverne Johnson, a homeless woman who has had her house for six months. Johnson has been homeless for four years. Before Kloehn gave her her house, she only had two tarps and few other possessions. (She originally had a tent, but it got taken.)

“He’s a godsend,” she said. “He’s an angel from heaven. I used to walk all night, and when I got tired, I’d sleep for a couple days. Other than that, I pretty much just used to walk. I don’t walk all night anymore with a house… I have security now.”

A house provides protection from rats and the elements, as well as that feeling of personal security. Moreover, mobility of the houses allow homeless to keep them.

“What the city does is they clean you out every once in awhile,” said Kloehn. “If you build a structure that isn’t on wheels, it’s called encroachment. You’re impeding on the city’s property; you’re impeding street sweeping; you’re blocking driveways.”

The city has laws against the structure, but not the person. The city removes the person’s structure, drives away, and leaves them there. At that point, many homeless stay in the same place and start building another structure, only to have it taken down again. With wheels, these houses can move out of the way of the city.

Unfortunately, someone keeps on trying to take away this mobility and security. Several houses have been firebombed. One of those houses, that of a deaf and mute man named Johnny, was almost entirely burned down.

Sheila Williams, a Wood Street inhabitant who received one of Kloehn’s early homes, and someone who has been firebombed as well said: “At the back, he had a thirty gallon fish tank, with goldfish in it. The one thing that saved Johnny’s house was that thirty gallons of water. I felt bad, because all the fish got boiled, but it gave my husband and I enough time to break the window and pour water in.”

Thankfully, Johnny was working at the time and was not in the house. Not only could he have burned to death, but he wouldn’t have been able to cry out for help. He has since rebuilt his house and added a new paint job, complete with murals of his own.

There has been more than one firebombing: Williams’ was the first, then Johnny’s, as well as two or three others. One of the houses has also been stolen. Someone came in with a forklift, picked it up, and carried it and everything in it away. Fortunately, according to Williams, cameras have been added along Wood Street at the top of every streetlight, all the way up to Target, so the perpetrator(s) will have a harder time getting away if they try to burn or steal a house again.

Currently, the Homeless Homes Project (HHP) that Kloehn is head of is searching for a new space to do demonstrations, build workshops, and receive material donations because its original workshop was a donated space. It also is working to receive certification as a nonprofit and improve its website so people can sign up for workshops. But even with lack of a headquarters, Kloehn would like to make it abundantly clear that he is willing to do talks and workshops anywhere with space and a place to plug his tools in.

“I have a passport and I am happy to go anywhere to teach people how to build,” he said. “All I need is a ticket, a place to stay, some food, tools, people, and somewhere to work.”

He went on to add that the Berkeley High School campus would be a great place to stage a workshop. He can be contacted at greg.kloehn@gmail.com, and his website gregorykloehn.com has more details.

Given the virtually unlimited supply of illegally dumped garbage and large amount of homeless, the HHP will be doing its work for some time to come. As Williams puts it: “You know that saying ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’? Well, these are Greg and I’s treasures.”

This article originally appeared in The Berkeley Jacket, the newspaper of Berkeley High School. Check out their website for more brilliant student-produced reporting.

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