Gregory Kloehn likes to challenge people’s ideas of home. Since 2010, the Oakland, Californian artist, whose “dumpster house” was featured on the Rachel Ray show in 2012, has been photographing and studying all different kinds of homes. Kloehn is particularly fascinated by structures made out of simple tarps and cardboard boxes. So, a few years ago, he decided to try his hand at building a home out of other people’s trash.
“I wanted to go shopping on the street, pick up illegally dumped items that I see every day and see what I could build with them,” Kloehn says. “I really wanted to make a home for one day for no money.”
The first home Kloehn built was more of an experiment. He slept in it for a few nights and then it sat in his studio, unused. And then one day, a homeless woman he had befriended came by and asked if she could borrow a tarp for the night. Kloehn gave her and her husband the home he had built instead. Today, through the Homeless Homes Project, Kloehn has given away over 50 tiny homes in Oakland, California. All of the homes that Kloehn builds are constructed out of discarded household items that he finds on the sidewalks and alleys of Oakland – trash, old appliances, broken furniture – and they’re all on wheels (one of the few building materials Kloehn purchases) so that they can be moved as needed.
While it might seem radical to build houses out of bed frames and windows out of washing machine doors, Kloehn isn’t the only visionary working on turning trash into homes. The Colombian company Conceptos Plásticos, founded by Bogota entrepreneur Oscar Andres Mendez, recycles plastic and rubber waste into construction blocks that can be fit together, Lego-style, to build low-cost housing, shelters, classrooms and other structures. The company recently received $300,000 of funding through an international social entrepreneurship contestsponsored by Chivas Regal. (The company did not return requests for an interview.)
Nationwide, the number of homeless people in the US decreased by 11% between 2010 and 2015. Matthew Doherty, the executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), attributes the decline to a shift towards stronger, evidence-based policies that emphasize a “housing first” approach.
Under such an approach, case workers and government agencies prioritize the speedy provision of permanent housing to homeless people; supplemental services like therapy and counseling come later and are provided on a strictly voluntary basis. While the “housing first” model might seem like an obvious way to address homelessness, it actually represents a significant move away from past years, when housing was often conditional upon participation in service programs or therapy regimes. A sizeable body of evidence now indicates that participants in “housing first” models find permanent housing faster, are more likely to remain in stable housing and less likely to require expensive emergency services.
Despite these successes, a number of cities with a high cost of living are still struggling to house their homeless populations, and some of these cities are incorporating tiny houses into their crisis responses. In Seattle, for example, a dramatic increase in the city’s homeless population due to increased housing demand and skyrocketing rents prompted the mayor to declarea state of emergency on homelessness in 2015. In addition to relaxing some of the city’s rules around encampments (which previously required a religious “host”), the city agreed to temporarily provide funding and services, including case management to help residents find permanent housing and employment and access other necessary social services, to three encampments.
The Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a Seattle-based nonprofit that’s been building permanent, affordable housing in the city for 25 years, stepped in to run the encampments, which consisted primarily of tents at the time. LIHI quickly began building tiny houses to replace the tents. The structures, which are funded by a variety of donors, cost about $2,300 (in materials) to build; the labor is often provided free of charge by students at local trade schools.
The homes generally represent a substantial improvement for the homeless men and women who reside in them, many of whom dislike the lack of privacy and security at homeless shelters. “At a homeless shelter, you don’t have any way to protect yourself once you fall asleep,” says Kitty Deberry, who lost her apartment 3.5 years ago and now lives in a tiny house village in Seattle. “I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep in an environment like that.”
For all their merits, though, tiny home communities for the homeless aren’t without their challenges. The structures often don’t conform to building codes, and informal efforts, including Kloehn’s, often aren’t sanctioned by local governments, which leaves the structures and their residents vulnerable to removal.
And then there’s the question of home, and whether tiny houses can ever serve as true, permanent homes or are simply a trendy bandaid that distracts from the bigger challenges of developing permanent affordable housing solutions for low-income Americans. “I do worry that the environment created by tiny homes sometimes does not create a permanent, home-like environment for people,” Doherty says. “People need to be in home-like environments that feel like places they want to be for the long term.”
Deberry, a leather craftsman, says she doesn’t view her tiny house as a home because she can’t bring her leather cutting tools into the house due to the village’s zero-tolerance ban on weapons. “For a lot of people, it is so much better, you’re up off the ground, you don’t have to worry about rats or cold,” Deberry says. “But it’s not a home.”
Some tiny house villages, however, are trying to build communities that capitalize on the advantages of the small, cost efficient structures while avoiding the drawbacks and impermanence of encampments. The largest and most ambitious of these efforts is Community First, a thoughtfully-designed tiny home village for the homeless consisting of RVs, permanent micro-homes and canvas-sided cottages on a 27-acre parcel outside Austin, Texas. The development’s first residents, who will all be expected to pay a small amount of rent, moved in in April, and the complex expects to ultimately house 250 people.
Alan Graham, the chief executive officer of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, the faith-based nonprofit that developed the Austin village, says his goal is for visitors who tour the village to leave saying “I want to live here!” Many of the village’s micro-homes are based on models designed by noted local architects, and they are, from a design perspective, quite gorgeous, featuring welcoming front porches and a minimal, modern aesthetic.
While micro-house residents rely on communal bathroom facilities and kitchens, the houses are equipped with mini fridges and freezers, microwaves and slow cookers for small meals. (RV residents have their own kitchens and bathrooms.) Community First also boasts case management services, a food pantry, an organic community garden, a weekly farmer’s market, assorted small farm animals, beehives, an art gallery, a medical clinic, job training services (and, for some, jobs), an outdoor movie theater and a public bus stop for residents.
Ultimately, the biggest argument in favor of tiny homes, even the temporary kind, is that they are a solution that’s available in the here and now.
“You know, obviously, ideally there would be apartments for all,” says Aaron Long of LIHI. “So we would like to put our tiny house villages out of business. But there doesn’t seem to be the political will in this country to make that happen and we view this as an excellent crisis response to the homelessness crisis. It’s much better than living on the street.”