Can tiny houses solve homelessness?

In Oakland, California, a novel urban solution to homelessness is improving the conditions of people living on the streets. 

The artist Gregory Kloehn, creator of the Homeless Homes Project, is using discarded materials to build miniature houses for people who are homeless.

The houses, which are just big enough to sleep in, are made from refuse such as wooden crates, plastic bottles and washing machine parts. They are constructed from scratch, insulated, given wheels, windows and a pitched roof. They are also painted, built to look aesthetically pleasing and given names like ‘R2D2’ and ‘Romanian Farm House’.

Kloehn notes that the reaction from the recipients of his houses has been positive. “They are so happy! One cried and got on his knees to thank me. They have also suggested improvements, including making the houses bigger,” Kloehn said. “Right now 25 or so [people are using the houses]. One couple had their home burned, another stolen and one even sold his. It is tough out there. So I keep making more.”

Kloehn, who himself lives in a tiny DIY house during the summer, is part of a growing cultural trend known as the Small House Movement. Partially a result of the current financial crisis and the fact that many people can’t afford their own home, the movement emphasises compact multifunctional design over size. But what is a social statement for some could be a lifeline for those who have slipped through the safety net of society.

The mini houses are designed to be cheap, only costing $30 to make. They are also warmer than a sleeping bag and protect against the rain. While shelters fill up fast and impose restrictions that some might not meet, Kloehn’s houses are lightweight and mobile so can be taken anywhere.

But although these one-person houses might be a step up from sleeping rough, they can only ever be temporary solutions to a long-term problem. They are not legally recognised as accommodation, so the people using them are still homeless. Nor do they provide the security of a home, as they could be stolen or vandalised. Homeless is a complex problem and factors contributing to homelessness can include physical and mental illness, substance abuse, financial problems and relationship breakdown. A mini house can’t solve any of these problems and won’t be of use to many of the people experiencing them, just as a bandage won’t heal a broken leg. Some accommodation can be better than none, but it isn’t nearly enough without long-term support.

It’s good that the Homeless Homes Project has provided those in need with temporary respite from sleeping rough and opened up a conversation about issues relating to homelessness, but this shouldn’t stop our society from seeking solutions to the more fundamental problems of permanent housing, medical and social care and employment for people who are homeless.

In London, a similar project was undertaken in 2013. Forest YMCA launched the MyPad housing project to make affordable, mobile homes from shipping containers, which would include a shower, bed, toilet, television and kitchen appliances. However, in 2014 the MyPad project became at risk due to poor financial management. Given this setback, it is unclear what the future of the MyPad project will be. By contrast, the Homeless Homes Project is continuing to grow. Kloehn has begun taking on volunteers and is accepting donations of both money and materials.

At New Hope, we’re also building a house and we could use your help. Our friends, or regular supporters, give New Hope the security to plan for the future and the funds which enable us to support our service users – those who are homeless or vulnerably-housed locally. We’re building a base of friends, brick by brick. To learn more, click here.

Alex Charlton