January 21, 2020

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The Empty Canvas: One Innovative Approach to Alleviating Homelessness

A low-cost emergency shelter is using innovative design to alleviate homelessness.


By Ron Schultz

Part of the Creating Good Work series 

Ever since humans first put paint to rock, we have been faced with the opportunity and challenge presented by the blank canvas. This open space has been a source of either ultimate freedom or total terror, depending on one’s relationship and comfort with its vastness.

As an example of the terror-side, an artist friend of mine used to kick his new un-stretched canvases around his studio just to show it who was boss. It was a futile effort since, of course, he still had to face its emptiness, eventually.

As entrepreneurs, that canvas takes many shapes and forms, but the launch of any new effort can be just as exhilarating as it is unknown and immeasurable. For those of us working in the social sector, the challenges and opportunities are often fortified by our own intransigence, our inability to get beyond the fixed ideas that keep us stuck trying the same things over and over.

Cardborigami Shelters

In Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George, based on the life of pointillist artist Georges Serualt, the main character sings as he paints, marveling that there is now a hat where there was never a hat before. When Tina Hovsepian, still in her mid-twenties, faced her blank canvas with the fearlessness of her youth, what emerged was a homeless/emergency shelter that had never been envisioned before. She called it, Cardborigami.

Born out of a studio project to redesign an Airstream trailer, what emerged was a unique, design-led answer to temporary shelter for the homeless and by extension to emergency housing. The problemCardborigami of homelessness in Los Angeles, where Hovsepian is based, is extraordinary. There are nearly 60,000 people living on the streets, a disgrace that should be unimaginable in a country like the United States, but unfortunately is all too real. And of that number barely a quarter have some form of shelter available to them.

From her original cardboard, tent-like, origami structure that could “open to create instant space with no assembly required,” Hovsepian modified the design into individual shelters. As she describes her process:

“A designer is very fortunate to be profoundly inspired and moved to create something tangible for social good. Every design has some inspiration, sometimes obvious to all, and sometimes so subtle that the designer herself doesn't even realize it. Cardborigami was born in Fall of 2007, but the seed of this idea, shelter, and non profit, was planted in the infinite past. I have come to realize that my true inspiration is something rather unexpected….”

Alleviating Suffering by Design

It was an inspiration based on opening to a new viewpoint. While traveling in Asia, Hovsepian saw abject poverty, and yet she also saw an innate happiness in many of those same poor. Upon her return, she saw a similar poverty existing within the United States, one of the wealthiest nations on earth, but in contrast to the sense of happiness, she found an over-riding and desperate suffering.

“In Los Angeles, skid row resembles many of the third world countries I visited, but it feels 10 times worse when juxtaposed to the mansions a few miles away. When I came back to LA, I realized I wanted to use my skills and talents to help make a difference in the world for the better and I wanted to focus on downtown skid row.”

From that empty canvas, this former University of Southern Californiahomelessness architecture student designed a foldable shelter that provides instant privacy and weather protection for those exposed to the elements. The shelters are naturally insulated, lightweight, water-resistant, flame-retardant and recyclable.

Innovative, Low-Cost and Portable

I recently participated in a build-day with her and her Cardborigami crew, and together with a build partner, even the most uninitiated among us could bend and counter-bend one of her shelters into shape in less than thirty minutes. Once assembled the shelter can then be opened and closed within a minute, and is easily transportable by a single person.

Amazingly, too, in contrast to the EDAR shopping cart shelters that cost in the realm of $500 each, a Cardborigami shelter costs less than $20. Hovsepian has created, designed and built not only a temporary answer to homelessness, but when an emergency strikes, there is now a low-cost shelter for the displaced.

In creating space from space, Cardborigami arises unhinged from the conventional. Elegant and useful, fresh and utterly practical, Hovsepian’s social innovation is truly based on its benefit of others. Amid its convoluted folds and cardboard buttresses, she addresses part of the problem.

More than Shelter, a Solution

Her program for helping those in need find a more lasting living solution to their homelessness is the other. The shelter is temporary, but the purchase of these units helps offset the cost of Cardborigami’s follow-up transitional process. That program allows those long-term displaced the opportunity to relocate and maintain permanent housing, while attempting to re-integrate the once-homeless back into society.

Her drive to accomplish this task arises from one of her teachers, Daisaku Ikeda, who wrote:

“It is easy to speak of loving one's fellow human beings. But it is difficult to lend assistance to a stranger who is in trouble. All too often people shun involvement by pretending not to see what's going on.... The realization of ideals such as world peace and love for all humanity starts from the way in which each individual deals with situations and problems in his or her immediate environment.”

Hovsepian has addressed the immediate, her present environment. And in doing so, Tina-Hovsepianshe has produced a shelter where there was no shelter before.

When we look out over a landscape, we have a number of choices: we can see what is missing, or we can see what might be there. Our comfort and ability to access and actualize what might arise within those empty spaces, is about recognizing what we can do. Closing our eyes does not take 60,000 people off the streets of a city. Fearlessly opening to what could be there, and being confident enough to make it happen, is what creating good work is all about.

Craig Dunn, the Dean of Western Washington University’s College of Business and Economics, calls this “deliberate disruptive design.” And as with Hovsepian it often emerges out of the blue, especially for those who can see what might be where currently nothing else exists.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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