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Tents on wheels give homeless people roof and pride
Brenda Gardenhire shows off her new home with pride. It looks like an oversized shopping cart covered with a khaki canvas. But to her, it's "wonderful" -- a stepping stone to get her off the streets and get her life back in order.
"It's like your own home, your own apartment, your own room," she said, showing off the 7-foot-long living space on wheels. "No one else can come in here but me."
Gardenhire is talking about her makeshift home called an EDAR, which stands for Everyone Deserves A Roof. The units are being distributed to homeless people in the Los Angeles area by the Everyone Deserves A Roof nonprofit organization.
It's the brainchild of "Revenge of the Nerds" movie producer Peter Samuelson, who has spent much of his life working with charities to help impoverished children.
He got the idea to help the homeless in recent years as he rode his bicycle from Los Angeles to the beach at Santa Monica.
On those bike rides, he began seeing more and more homeless people. But he didn't just whiz by. He stopped to talk with them -- 62 people in all. One by one, he listened to their needs and what they wanted most: a roof over their heads. And the idea for the EDAR was born.
"If you had to define the value of a civilization, it's not how many SUVs you've got," Samuelson said. "To me, I think it's how well do we take care of our children, our homeless people, our mentally ill, those less fortunate."
He partnered with the Pasadena Art Center College of Design for a design contest and the current contraption was created. Each unit costs about $500 to make.
The four-wheeled home has an expandable base that stays off the ground and is covered by a canvas, giving it the feel of a tent. It extends 86 inches and is 32 inches wide, thin enough to fit through standard doorways. Each unit has a mattress and sleeping bag to provide comfort. It's also flame-retardant and sturdy enough to keep its occupants dry during heavy rains. A braking mechanism prevents the unit from rolling away at night. They also come with a chain and padlock to prevent it from being stolen.
Samuelson said he initially wanted to build more permanent shelters for all of the homeless people in the Los Angeles area. "But when you do the math, you're looking at $3 billion to get 60,000 people off the damp concrete, and that's just in L.A."
He said the EDAR isn't a perfect solution, but it's a good, economical stopgap. "This is $500 to get a man or a woman or a child off the damp concrete," he said. "I don't think it's the best. ... But for now, I think a little bit of privacy -- not being rained on, not sleeping on the ground, not getting pneumonia from the damp -- has a little bit of value."
Jose Font, 50, agrees. He got an EDAR late last year. He said he's been homeless off and on since 1979. He slept on a tarp with a blanket and worked on computer repairs before he became one of about 60 people to get an EDAR.
"Everybody calls it the hobo condo. Everybody envies me because I sleep on a mattress inside," he said. "It makes me feel like I've got something to come to. It feels more like a home than just a tarp and concrete."
He added, "It's light as a feather when I push it. I can put it anywhere."
Font keeps it locked to a telephone on public property when he's away.
James Ramirez, a social worker with the Venice Community Housing Corporation, said he has been able to use the EDAR as incentive to get people's lives back on track.
"What we're doing is using the EDAR as a carrot for them to come in to see us," Ramirez said. "They want the EDAR because they want to keep dry when it's raining and they want a place to stay at night that's comfortable. So we're using this to connect with them."
"For us, it's working really well," he said. "This is their home. This is what they're proud of at this moment. ... It means a step in the right direction to get back into society."
The EDAR organization says it's starting with baby steps. In addition to the 60 units already given out, another 110 units have been ordered. The units are distributed to shelters, churches and other organizations that help the homeless. Those groups then distribute the units. The EDAR group tries to stay in phone contact with its users every week or two. EDAR.org: How you can help
EDAR currently has about 30 people on a waiting list, plus another 10 shelters in the Los Angeles area. The organization is also looking at land provided by a local authority where they could let women and families stay on a site that also has functioning bathrooms.
EDAR has fielded dozens more calls from across the country and around the world about the units. Samuelson said they're "studying what works best" and looking at an array of options.
"People talk about the homeless as if it's some homogeneous group of drunken, unemployed, too-lazy-to-get-a-job men. They're totally wrong. They need to come meet people," he said. "What's the point in having a society if it's devoid of helping people less fortunate?"
He added, "As we raise money, we will get people off the concrete."
For Brenda Gardenhire, that means the world.
"It's a step up to you. It's like you're making progress," she said. "Now, I have me a little place to stay. I'm moving up."