A prime example of this charitable design trend, Cardborigami, is a temporary, reusable folded cardboard structure for lightweight, portable, and insulated shelter. The one-piece, waterproof template by architect Tina Hovsepian was designed to provide the L.A. homeless with much-needed privacy and protection from the elements. The innovative approach draws on the ancient Japanese art of origami paper folding and makes use of the same cheap and ubiquitous material.

Cardborigami has graced several design exhibitions – and survived proper tests under real-life conditions. Right now, Tina Hovsepian and her team are in discussion with several major homeless aid organizations to launch a pilot program in Sacramento. At the same time, Cardborigami shelters are also available for sale on their website to serve as an educational toy, for backyard camping, or to provide welcome shade at the beach. These private sales help to finance the project’s charitable intentions and supplement donations and grants. According to Hosvepian, “the plan is to establish memoranda of understanding between Cardborigami and many other organizations to facilitate and expiate care of the outdoor citizens who enter our four-step path out of homelessness program.“ These four steps encompass immediate shelter, access to services through Cardborigami partners, permanent housing, and – last but not least – creating jobs for those they help to sustain. Overall efforts include a recycling scheme to encourage homeless people to collect cardboard and turn it in for recycling at the same centers that distribute their ready-to-assemble portable units.

For a successful use scenario, look no further than the Swags For Homeless backpack bed and 2011 ‘best product design’ Red Dot Award winner. Melbourne-based founders Tony and Lisa Clark designed their multi-purpose bag to serve as a life-saver for those who are turned away from shelters. Beyond this vital function, the backpack bed also revolutionized one-person camping and disaster relief. The couple’s ultralight, waterproof, fire retardant, and mildew resistant tent doubles as a backpack to address unfortunate realities. “We agree that houses are most important for homeless people. But in some cases there is simply not enough emergency accommodation available – or the homeless person cannot access it for other reasons,“ states Lisa Clark. Swags for Homeless is a fully accredited Australian national charity, funded 100 % by the public and working with more than 300 welfare agencies across Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Germany. All profits from backpack bed sales go directly to homeless projects.

Also from Melbourne is another project exploring urban structures that might improve the life of homeless people. After all, a truly humane city could provide its homeless with basic shelter by building it into the city’s infrastructure – think park benches, bus shelters, tram stops etc. How we treat our underprivileged is a prime indicator of social evolution and sophistication. With this in mind, Sean Godsell Architects came up with a so-called Park Bench house, an urban intervention that switches from daytime use as a seat to providing shelter at night.

Beyond overnight safety and shelter, many homeless also lack storage facilities for their belongings. In cooperation with social workers and several homeless, Italy-based design office Zo-Loft came up with a prototype shelter that incorporates portable storage and an expandable tent using recycled or recyclable materials. Their Wheelly consists of a rolling aluminum frame with two expandable polyester resin tents. Rolling storage during the day, this clever design folds out into a one-person shelter at night. Meanwhile, inside the rolling frame, a fabric bag holds personal belongings. Since its invention in 2008, the Wheelly has been showcased at numerous exhibitions and charity events to raise awareness and encourage discussion of this pressing issue. Zo-Loft designer Paolo Emilio Bellisario explains that „we were so proud and surprised when we talked to social workers involved with homeless on the streets. They told us that we were tackling this problem as if we were working with them every day.”
Zo-Loft aims to sell their Wheelly to companies or governmental institutions with an interest in corporate responsibility who will then donate these portable helpers to relevant organizations. The final product should be available for around € 700 per unit.

Quite a bit cheaper and easy on the earth’s resources, the following designs come courtesy of US designer Paul Elkins. Back in his pre-teen days, he would already build DIY marvels with his uncle – but now this bona fide Gyro Gearloose attracts thousands of clicks and comments with his blog and video posts. Blessed with boundless enthusiasm for tinkering and novel solutions, Paul Elkins designs trikes, mobile shelters, micro boats, stoves, and micro survival gear, among others. At Nevada’s notorious Burning Man festival he introduced his first eye-catching public prototype, a kind of rest box. Over the years, he continued to surprise and delight festival fans with ever-new ideas (also published on his blog), but a Designboom call for homeless shelter designs supplied the final kick. “I saw all these entries and winners and thought: I can do it better,” Paul explains. So, he researched, asked homeless people about their needs, and finally came up with a homeless push cart, a simple mobile living unit with several storage solutions, kitchenette, and lavatory. Over the years, the yellow art shelter and tipi shelter (both fashioned from coroplast) joined the line-up, but to date none of these visions have made it into production.

According to Elkin, he simply doesn’t “feel comfortable to give the prototypes out of hand without knowing how they perform on a long-term basis. I like developing concepts and playing with spaces, especially small spaces, and I hope people take my ideas, experiment with them, and even elaborate them.“ Fans from around the world have downloaded and constructed Elkin’s blueprints, often to support those in need. An approach that underscores how selfless altruism could be the key to real help and improvement.

Text: Romy Uebel
Header image: kallejipp / photocase.com