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A Big-Hearted Man and His Calling to Build Tiny Houses for Oakland's Homeless

05/05/2015 05:40 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

"Homeless people," says Gregory Kloehn, an artist, plumber and construction contractor based in Oakland, Calif., "they're not really seen... I don't want to say as human but almost. I mean, they're definitely [viewed] lower than second class citizens."

To Kloehn, it's odd that our society finds it acceptable to ignore the plight of those living on the street.

Several years ago, when Kloehn got an iPhone, he began taking pictures of the structures erected by the homeless of West Oakland, compiling the photos in the book "Homeless Architecture." Through this work, he came to know his homeless neighbors as the unique people that they are.

But Kloehn's fascination didn't stop there. Inspired by the ingenuity of his homeless neighbors, he put his construction and artistic skills towards making homes with the materials they were sourcing, mostly illegally dumped items found on the streets of West Oakland.

"I really just ripped a page out of the homeless peoples' book, their own game plan," says Kloehn.

The first home -- complete with wheels for mobility and a lock for safety -- and a bottle of celebratory Champagne was given to a homeless couple Kloehn had come to know while taking photos. As he saw them wheel it down the street and live in it, he came to understood the value that a safe, dry place has to people who have fallen on hard times.

To date, Kloehn has built 35 miniature homes for the homeless in Oakland and San Francisco. All construction materials (except for the wheels and a few other odds and ends), are sourced from garbage. He also runs workshops and gives lectures, teaching other artists and handypeople the tricks of the trade. Following his lead, other builders have made homes for their neighbors in Los Angeles, Tucson, Arizona, and even abroad.

"It's really put me in tune with the homeless," says Kloehn. "Now, I see them as people. I know their name, I know their story, I know where they come from, I feel comfortable going up, chatting with them, just hanging out as a person."