A group of UNLV students is standing in the front of the class, making a pitch to a Hollywood producer. The producer, Peter Samuelson, is wearing a black shirt and black slacks, and has just flown in from Los Angeles.
But these are not film students. Instead, they’re architecture students, and their projects are not only about design, but also community service.
Their goal is to redesign a mobile, individual shelter unit for homeless people. In 2007, Samuelson came up with the idea for a project called Everyone Deserves a Roof, when, on a bike ride from West Hollywood to the beach, he counted 62 homeless people. It prompted him to engage students at the Pasadena Art Center College of Design to come up with a low-cost, portable shelter.
The result was a single-person, mobile tent that folds up to look something like a shopping cart stuffed with military-grade canvas. When it’s extended, it offers a little privacy, a thin but comfy sleeping pad, and a few pockets for personal belongings. Samuelson’s nonprofit has distributed hundreds of “EDARs” in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver and Camden, New Jersey, since 2007. EDAR works with local nonprofits and homelessness agencies to distribute the shelters, paid for through philanthropy.
Throughout the years, Samuelson and his staff have accumulated feedback from the homeless to determine how improvements could be made for the second version. That’s where UNLV comes in: Samuelson connected with Downtown Design Center director Ken McCown and assistant professor Joshua Vermillion to put students here on the task of designing the new and improved EDAR unit.
A couple of weeks before Samuelson arrived for a progress report, UNLV students Nasar Saghafi and Eric Gross wheeled an old EDAR into a spacious architecture lab. They quickly unfolded it, and Saghafi climbed inside and stretched out.
“It’s a little hard to get in, but it’s pretty comfortable,” he says. The frame, however, is made of steel, and the wheels are low-grade, and Gross adds, “It’s heavy and hard to push up a hill.” It weighs about 150 pounds.
So their goal was to make the new version lighter and more mobile, and to bring the cost down from $500 per unit to less than $400.
The class has whittled its redesign ideas down to three, which they presented to Samuelson in a workshop session last week. All of their designs paid homage to the initial EDAR, reflecting its basic character and intent: a durable tent on wheels that can be folded and moved. But each proposed differences—sliding foundations or bicycle wheels or pop-up chairs.
Samuelson peppered each design team with questions, from the more practical: “Can that be towed by a bicycle?” and “Is there room for personal belongings?” to the technical: “Shouldn’t the hinge be on the other side?” and “Where’s the center of gravity there?”
Students are now at the stage of hunting for businesses in the community that will help with materials and production, pro bono or at a low cost.
UNLV has agreed to deliver a new, functional EDAR prototype by the end of the semester, after which some may be deployed in Las Vegas, where more than 7,000 people were homeless as of January 2013, including 1,500 children, according to the Southern Nevada Homeless Census.
And therein lies a tough question beyond the interesting riddles of design: Will the new units be welcomed in Las Vegas?
The intent is to distribute them, but the details—and relationships—have yet to be ironed out. Samuelson and UNLV have begun talks with the Downtown Project’s Rangers, a group of street-level concierges familiar with the homeless Downtown, and with a nonprofit called United Movement Organized Kindness, which has expressed interest in deploying the units.
While some cities have been receptive to homeless people using the shelters around town, others have forbidden it. “Santa Monica would rather we be dead than see an EDAR,” Samuelson says. Some argue that the units encourage the homeless to stay on the streets, or are a blight. EDAR has yet to forge a relationship with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department or the City of Las Vegas. For now, the focus is on design.
But it’s clear that Samuelson’s intent is to help homeless people who need shelter immediately, not to argue the finer points of social policy. “Everybody Deserves a Roof” pretty much explains his philosophy. And, he points out, the units have wheels—ready, at a moment’s notice, as the homeless are, to be shooed out of sight.