EDAR in LA
And some organizations are using the units to reach out to such clients as a bridge to more regular shelter use.
Better than a Cart
Lindeman and Zasa first teamed up in 2004 as classmates in a design studio led by Annie Chu, focusing on homelessness in Los Angeles. Chu challenged students to find a way to apply their design skills to improving the lives of the people they were studying.
"I befriended Roland, a homeless man who frequented my local coffee shop," recounts Lindeman. "As part of the class project, the first cart was made with him and for him of found objects and five dollars' worth of materials bought at the 99-cent store."
"The original idea was that anyone on the street could replicate this mobile shelter," Lindeman says.
The basis of the design had always been the ubiquitous shopping cart, but guest juror Randal Wilson encouraged the designers to try to remove some of the stigma from this unofficial symbol of homelessness. "He told us, 'You have to take the ghetto out,' and I think that was our 'a-ha' moment," recalls Lindeman.
"At the beginning we were mostly looking at the ingenuity and creativity of the homeless population as precedents," he continues.
"As the design progressed, we started to look at more tents and army cots for inspiration. But, for the most part, this hasn't really been done before, so we were just trying to make something well suited for our homeless clients."
Something like this actually has been done before, in the form of artist Krzysztof Wodiczko's Homeless Vehicles project let loose in New York City in 1988. Since Wodiczko's intent with his portable home/cart was more an artistic statement of symbolic resistance than user satisfaction, however, it remained an art installation and ended its run in 1989.
In Boston, Michael Rakowitz's more recent paraSITE project forwent the wheels, favoring a fabric construct that folds down to the size of a large briefcase. The unfolded fabric inhabitation captures exhaust heat by attaching directly to building vents. Its collapsible mobility relates it conceptually to the EDAR.
Two key differences between those projects and the EDAR are funding and the desire to make a broader impact via mass production, both thanks to Samuelson, who sat on Lindeman's and Zasa’s final studio review and took up the mantle from there.
The designers have continued their involvement with EDAR since the original design, tweaking the product and completing numerous mock-ups by working closely with Mike Orozco of Precision Wire, Inc., all on pro-bono basis.
Modifications since the first iteration have included decreasing the amount of wire to reduce rattling, and simplifying the frame configuration to decrease the number of breakable parts.
The resulting lightweight metal tube frame is approximately the width of a wheelchair and sits on four lockable wheels. It has closable wire baskets at either end, sandwiching a sturdy, waterproof canvas body complete with mesh vision panels and reflective edge stripping.
In "day mode," the EDAR slips easily over pavement. The unit converts quickly and easily to "night mode," in which it can comfortably sleep someone well over six feet (two meters) tall on a mattress supported by a metal-and-wood base. The entire unit bears a slight resemblance to a space invader from the Atari video game.
Each unit costs just under $500 to make. EDAR, Inc. sells them at cost to shelters, churches, and other interested organizations. How those organizations use or distribute the EDARs is up to them, but Samuelson's intent is to make them available to homeless clients free of charge.
Better than a Cot
Reverend Andy Bates, CEO of the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles, has become one of the biggest proponents of EDAR. "I was hesitant to encourage its use in the mobile way it was designed," he says, "but I now see it as a trust-builder to those hard-nosed homeless whose main issue is that they've given up hope."
In the falling economy, the biggest change that Bates has seen since early fall 2008 is an increase in homeless two-parent families and single dads with kids. The Mission is using 17 EDARs inside the communal spaces of its five-story facility exclusively to house this influx of families, and Bates is fundraising to purchase dozens more.
He reports positive responses to the EDARs, at least compared to other options available. "Families who use them talk about how safe and warm they feel inside," Bates says, "but once offered a room, they take it."
"It's a little creepy," observes Nancy, a young teenager staying at the Mission. "I mean, it's better than a cot and definitely better than the ground, but I'd still prefer a bed."
"It was definitely more comfortable and more private than a cot," agrees former EDAR user Carmelita. "And outside the Mission, if there was nowhere else to go, I think that the EDAR would be better than the cold ground."
Yurth Himot and Lindeman both floated the idea of finding a slice of unused city land and starting a small EDAR community, complete with access to potable water.
"Before the press hit, we were seeking organizations willing to purchase EDARs," recalls Julie Yurth Himot, the EDAR, Inc. program coordinator. "Now, people are coming to us."
Stemming largely from a December 2008 article in the Los Angeles Times, the organization has been inundated with EDAR requests from shelters, as well as from homeless individuals who have read about the product online.
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Leigh Christy is an architect and writer living in Los Angeles. More by Leigh Christy