1. Built environment
July 27, 2015updated 03 Aug 2023 1:55pm

Can this “rolling shelter” help improve lives for the homeless?

By Drew Reed

As economic inequality continues to rise in many countries, cities around the world are dealing with increasing levels of homelessness. And far too often, the easiest answer seems to be the least humane. Some cities have responded by building anti-homeless spikes, while others have outlawed giving food to the homeless or authorised police to confiscate the belongings of people living on the street

But Eduardo Lacroze believes this trend can be reversed. Lacroze, a Buenos Aires-born architect currently based in New York, has created the “Rolling Shelter”: a small mobile sleeping space, offering homeless people a minimal level of living comfort as they search for a more permanent home.

Lacroze’s architecture firm, Lacroze-Miguens-Prati, is relatively new to the issue of homelessness, focusing primarily on high-end homes. But after hearing an announcement for a contest held by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) for a “pop-up” structure for the homeless, he decided to take on the issue.

The assembly instructions (continues below). Image: Lacroze-Miguens-Prati.

His design for the contest, held for the benefit of housing activist group The Mad Housers, consists of a series of collapsible panels that fold up to be easily attached to a shopping cart. The panels fold out to form a six-foot by 30-inch  sleeping space, offering additional personal safety and protection against extreme weather. Inside, bedding material is built into the lower panel; the upper panels come with a battery-powered LED light.

Lacroze thinks this design is better suited to the needs of many homeless people than other options currently available. “For many people living in this situation, homeless shelters aren’t in tune with their needs,” he says. “This design is a better fit for some of the behaviour patterns we find among homeless people, allowing them a higher level of autonomy.”

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The shelters can be purchased individually (it costs roughly $500) or rented; one possibility is for the units to be provided temporarily to homeless people by city governments or other agencies, using a system similar to bike sharing. Units could be checked out at various stations around the city, and people in need of the shelter could rent them for a deposit plus a nominal fee.

Lacroze envisions that these check-out stations can also provide services for the homeless: showers, laundry, first aid, and kitchens. One particularly important service that could be provided is cell phone charging. “Having regular access to a phone line is becoming particularly important for homeless people looking for work,” says Lacroze.

After being checked out, the shelter could be used in a number of locations. Possibilities include near the rental stations, or other smaller shelter areas offering some of the more essential services found at larger stations. Another option would be to use the shelters at abandoned plots of land.

After submitting their design for the AIA contest in February, his group’s submission was eventually chosen as the winner. In May, they built and exhibited the first prototype of the design.

Though many were pleased with the design, others had reservations. The most common criticism of the project is that, in effect, it incentivises homelessness. “The nagging question,” Ben Schiller of Fast Company writes, “is whether designs like these, whatever their strengths, actually end up encouraging homelessness by making it minimally more endurable.”

And the rest. Image: Lacroze-Miguens-Prati.

It’s possible that having access to these shelters may, as critics claim, cause some people to remain homeless longer. But, conversely, the increased living standards may allow others peace of mind, giving them an advantage in their search for a more stable living situation. And the assumption such criticisms make is rather chilling: that homelessness ought to be made as miserable as possible for it to be disincentivised.

Lacroze is well aware of these criticisms and confronts them head on. “We recognize that the project doesn’t fix the structural economic issues that cause homelessness,” he admits. “But by offering this option, we’re providing an effective short-term solution that helps improve the quality of life for the homeless and gives them access to new opportunities to improve their situation.”

Now, Lacroze and his group are working on revising the design to be more effective in practice. Their biggest challenge is bringing the cost down, which they hope to do by finding more economic materials. They have managed to bring maintenance costs down for damaged shelter units by using interchangeable parts: if one of the panels is damaged, for instance, it can be swapped out for another panel without affecting the other parts of the shelter.

He hopes to roll out a trial run of the design, where a limited number of the shelters are used in real world conditions in the near future. He expects that this trial would either be in New York, where he is based, or Atlanta, the headquarters of The Mad Housers, the beneficiary of the AIA contest.

After a successful trial, Lacroze hopes to distribute the design, primarily in cities within the United States. He hopes to find backers in the form of both municipal governments as well as corporate sponsors. So far, construction retailer The Home Depot has proved particularly interested in the project, providing both construction supplies as well as surplus shopping carts. He also intends to raise funds via crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter.

He also hopes to work in conjunction with the two groups that sponsored the project: the AIA and the Mad Housers. The AIA could help publicise the project, he thinks, while the Mad Housers could potentially provide grass-roots support and a base of volunteers.

Though there are no current plans to distribute the project internationally, Lacroze thinks the design has the potential to adapt to the situations of homeless people in other countries as well. And his design has already generated interest from media outlets in his home country, Argentina. There, the project has been featured on televised interviews and an article in the country’s largest newspaper, Clarín

But surprisingly, Lacroze seems less enthusiastic about rolling out his rolling shelter in his home country. He’s worried about Argentina’s notoriously opportunistic politicians using it to prop up their image.

“Many political parties in Argentina use projects like these to build loyalty, or simply for publicity,” he says. “I’d like to avoid that. It’s not what this project is about.”

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