Mobile Shelters for the Homeless: the EDAR/Cartavan Project

Mobile Shelters for the Homeless: the EDAR/Cartavan Project

Many of you have noticed and asked questions about a blue canvas-covered cart with the strange word EDAR on it in the lobby of the Centre this past year. EDAR stands for Everyone Deserves a Roof, a mobile shelter for homeless folks (think shopping cart + tent).

Motivated to reduce the suffering of Vancouver’s unhoused and precariously housed population, Ken Spencer’s nephew Dwain Kotowick stumbled across the EDAR project online, which originated in Los Angeles a decade ago. The SpencerCreo Foundation deemed the idea worth exploring and reinvigorated the original project in collaboration with the LA-based founders.

SpencerCreo recruited a small, dedicated volunteer team of engineers, builders and community workers who came together to help design a new and improved EDAR, with input from the DTES community. The EDARs were assembled in a factory in China and SpencerCreo ordered five shipped to Vancouver to pilot them in the community.

Meanwhile, the team was inspired to develop its own mobile shelter locally, a unit better suited to withstand Vancouver’s soggy climate with a hard-shell waterproof canopy, affectionately called the Cartavan.

Safety was always a number one focus: we met with the Fire Department, added a CO2 detector and small fire extinguisher in each Cartavan, and ensured there was a soft canvas egress you could cut through for emergency escape.

SpencerCreo optimistically expected the EDARs and Cartavans to be a hit with agencies in the Downtown Eastside and the City of Vancouver. Our plan was to partner with agencies who could recommend candidates and support and monitor their use of the units, but these busy organizations were reluctant to take on a new program due to lack of resources.

Although we were not proposing the units as permanent housing, the City of Vancouver was not on board with the project, as it conflicted with their strategic plan to move everyone living outside into housing. More bad news: we were informed COV street engineers would probably dispose of the units if they found them on the sidewalk during their daily sweeps.

This is certainly not the first attempt to build different styles of shelter for the homeless, but without support from local government, these projects tend to fizzle out. Take Khaleel Seivwright of Toronto Tiny Shelters for example, who built and distributed over 100 small wooden structures for people to live in and was sued by the City of Toronto.

Another setback cropped up. We learned upon distributing our first Cartavan that the units are immediately stolen when left unattended, even though they are locked up with a chain. We paused to evaluate how imperative it was to provide a storage site for the units when people are not using them.

One of our first stolen Cartavans was discovered a month later with creative modifications and an extension to make it more convenient for its industrious owner’s use (pictured below). He used it for several months to sleep in and wheel around his stuff, until he moved into a shelter and the City confiscated and crushed it from where it was parked outside.

A bright spot on this learning journey was our partnership with Atira. Since 2020, a Cartavan stationed at Atira’s outdoor Sister Square Space has been used as a respite napping nest for sex workers. Atira’s DTES Disaster Relief Hub was home to another Cartavan whenever its owner wasn’t using it to sleep. This same Hub provided welcome storage for our small fleet of five EDARs and six Cartavans during a time the project was in limbo.

Ultimately, we gave up on the dream of a supportive program which would have included 24/hr access to lockable storage for people to safely leave their unit when they weren’t using it and pick it up at their convenience. Instead, we are continuing to study the issue. We  trusted that the resilient folks in the DTES community would figure out what to do and gave 11 units to people who wanted them. Two have been given out in Kelowna. We knew many would be stolen or sold, and hoped that whoever got one, by whatever means, would at least be using it for its intended purpose: rest, storing stuff, and adding a bit of comfort and security to someone’s hard life on the street.

SpencerCreo staff are checking in regularly on the status of the units now that they are out and exchanging hands in the community, gaining valuable insights into what is and isn’t working, and using this information to help us determine our future involvement in the project.

We admit our compassionate hope to offer people living outdoors a drier, safer place to sleep was not realized in the fullness we envisioned. We took on more than we expected with the project, as we approached an intensely complex social problem with a basic, well-intentioned idea. We tried, we learned, we were frustrated, and we are humbler for the experience.

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