“This is like a hug!” Berkeley resident Elenna Rubin Goodman said as she sat cross-legged inside a tiny house under construction at the Kloehn’s West Oakland studio. “It gives you containment, which you don’t have on the street. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Goodman was one of two people to stop by that morning inquiring if Kloehn was “the Tiny House Guy.” While Goodman was simply curious, Kloehn’s other visitor, general contractor Garner McAleer, offered Kloehn his unused construction materials.
Kloehn has been experimenting in miniature structures since 2009, including a studio apartment he built inside a dumpster, which he uses as his summer home in Brooklyn, New York. The idea to build houses from refuse, however, was inspired by the homeless themselves.
“I was just looking at all the structures that homeless people would make,” Kloehn explained. “It got me looking at their lives: How they’re treated, how they get by, what they live off of. I kind of became enamored by that.”
“It’s a study in life and ‘What’s a home?’ too,” he said. “That was a big question I was asking: What does it take to make a home? … You think of homelessness: Was that around 5,000 years ago? Would you be considered homeless, or could you just make a home? Private property has changed a lot.”
After completing his first tiny house, Kloehn was visited by Sheila Williams, a familiar face around his neighborhood who has been homeless for 35 years. Knowing Kloehn was always willing to help out, Sheila asked if he could spare a tarp so she and her husband, Oscar Williams, 70, could weather-proof their tent. Kloehn told her to return the next day for something better than a tarp. When they did, he handed them the keys to the tiny home as well as a bottle of champagne.
Sheila, 54, a Native American from Yakima, Washington, has assumed the role of den mother for about a dozen people now living in Kloehn houses along Oakland’s Wood Street near the Emeryville border. Nestled amid freeway overpasses, speeding cars, bustling railroads, and trash compacting centers, the tight-knit community has survived adversity — and even attacks.
Sheila’s first home had to be replaced shortly after Kloehn donated it. A passing transient burned the tiny structure down when Oscar refused to share his house — and wife of over 20 years — with the stranger. An arsonist also attacked another tiny home on Wood Street that belonged to perhaps the group’s most vulnerable member, Johnny Sastini, who is deaf.
Sastini, 59, can neither hear nor speak. He can read lips, and communicates through hand motions or by writing in a notebook. The tiny house Kloehn gave him originally came with a wall-mounted fish tank visible from both inside and outside the house. When an unknown attacker set Sastini's house ablaze, Sheila quickly saved it by smashing the tank.
After the fire, Sastini began repeatedly painting his house with different murals — the Bay Bridge spanning one side wall, shimmering butterflies fluttering up his front door — in the hope that people would think his home is too beautiful to destroy. He said that local police, who are aware of his auditory and vocal limitations, also help protect his home by checking on it while he works sorting metal at an alloy recycling center.
Near the home of Sheila and South Africa-born Oscar is the tiny home of another couple, 47-year-old Terry Kelly and his girlfriend Teresa Morris, who was buzzing with excitement the weekend before her 50th birthday on March 25.
The members of the Wood Street community sometimes come together, especially on occasions such as birthdays, for barbecues using charcoal briquettes supplied by Sheila, who also oversees camp cleanliness to maintain good relations with the police. Because their houses are clearly semi-permanent structures, each resident’s bagged trash is now simply collected by trash haulers instead of their whole shelter being swept away as garbage.
Kelly has held jobs with two different Oakland homeless programs ended by Alameda County funding cuts. The first, Howie Harp Multi-Service Center, provided showers, laundry, meals and grocery distribution, and educational programs, but was shuttered in 2010. Terry’s next employer, Traveler’s Aid Society, lost its lease in 2011.
In 2013, the most recent data available, Alameda County estimated more than 4,200 people were homeless on any given night. East Oakland Community Project Executive Director Wendy Jackson estimates that the actual number is at least 2.5 to 3 times higher, however, because the county’s calculus doesn’t account for people in shelters, hospitals and jails.
Laverne, 59, has her own Kloehn house parked a few streets away, but occasionally stays on Wood Street at her boyfriend June Wilson’s house, 67. She became homeless three years ago when she left a husband who mistreated her.
Laverne is a graduate of a prestigious East Coast university who still dreamily recalls three months spent traveling through Europe just before she graduated. Her five grown children know where to find her, but have agreed to keep her location and circumstances a secret from their father for her own protection, which is also why she withheld her last name from Al Jazeera America.
Laverne expressed a sentiment echoed by many people living in Kloehn’s homes: Homelessness can happen to absolutely anyone, even people who least expect it.
“All this stuff out here can happen to anybody … no matter what your color is, where you live, or anything,” Laverne said.