The Mad Housers

Another email

In response to a person who wrote asking what sort of design help the Mad Housers could use. My edited response:

The Mad Housers have long tried to balance between the issues of 'more' and 'better' when it comes to shelter. Given a limited (VERY limited) amount of resources, do we want to make fewer, better shelters or more, skimpier shelters?

Until recently, we've been mostly on the 'more' side - most of our design changes have been the type that help improve the longevity of the shelters (roof overhangs) or give great improvement at little additional cost (hi hats). However, our our Board is now beginning to think that certain quality-of-life improvements may help with the longevity of the camp as a whole. Simply put, if we start making additional investments in things that aren't directly shelter, such as building toilets or adding solar electrification, the quality of the camp may help convince outsiders that we're a net benefit to the community. Currently, even the best-run homeless camps are dicey propositions at best. Anything we can do to improve a camp's chances of survival should be considered.

So there's our challenge: right now, we're focused 100% on basic shelter. What other things can we do to make an encampment a better place to live? Once we start looking at things beyond simple shelter, there are lots of needs that our clients have. Hygiene. Communication. Transportation. Power. Storage. Food preparation. Community.

Here are our design constraints:

  • It should be a capital improvement, not an ongoing service. In other words, we can build a woodshed, but we're not going to start up firewood delivery.
  • It needs to be buildable by volunteers using ordinary tools and off-the-shelf materials.
  • It cannot be fixed to the ground. Our shelters sit on cinder blocks, which make them chattel property. If we were to pour a foundation, we would start crossing a number of laws.
  • It should give us maximum bang for our buck. Currently, one of our huts costs about $500 to build; this makes us the cheapest secure shelter solution that I've yet found. (If you can find a better one, please let us know!) Our total yearly budget is around $10,000. So a project that costs $4000 would be a huge investment of our budget that would otherwise shelter 8 people - it would have to be pretty compelling!
  • Anything that requires ongoing maintenance should be maintainable by our clients. For example, we've frequently discussed building composting toilets. But who's going to service them? We're fairly certain that the first time someone gets sick in a potty, nobody will clean it, and it'll go downhill from there.

So you can see, it's a challenging problem. You could pick just about any area and work with it. What interests you?

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