Real Leaders

Housing The Homeless: Cardboard Tents Sprout in Brussels

When a homeless friend told Xavier Van der Stappen that rough sleepers cherish large cardboard boxes because they offer not only shelter but also a place to hide from the shame of living on the street, he decided to act.

Using cardboard donated by a local factory, Van der Stappen worked with designers to produce 20 portable cardboard tents, which homeless people are using on the streets of the Belgian capital during the cold winter.

“There are homeless people everywhere. When I saw them, it made me remember refugee camps in Africa,” said Van der Stappen, the man behind the ORIG-AMI project.

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“It is a shame that in the 21st century there are still people living in streets in a very rich country like Belgium.”

The region around Belgium’s capital city had more than 4,000 homeless people last March, according to La Strada, a public body which tracks the numbers of homeless.

Canvas tents are banned on the streets of Brussels, as camping is forbidden in the city, and cartons are usually disposed of by city cleaning services.

Van der Stappen said the tents were needed as many hostels were full and strict rules stopped some people using them.

Xavier Van der Stappen and Annie Oger get ready to distribute ORIG-AMI cardboard tents. Photo: Annie Oger/Cultures and Communications Association

“They cannot go with a dog or as a couple; they cannot drink,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Alcohol is a problem, but for them also a solution because if they drink they forget about everything. So it’s a way to escape their problems.”

The factory that donated the cardboard recommended Van der Stappen use a local prison service to make the tents. The irony of the situation appealed to him.

“For me, it was kind of a symbol,” he said. “The prisoners have a bed and food. The people in the street are free, but they are still in the street.”

Feedback from users of the origami-style tents will inform an improved design and rollout of 100 more shelters over the rest of the winter, he said.

Van der Stappen paid for the first 20 tents himself. He thinks they could be hired out at summer festivals to fund the provision of more shelters next winter.

He is keen to stress, however, that he sees the cardboard tents as a temporary solution to homelessness.

“I’m not the person who is trying to solve it. I just try to find a solution for today, not for tomorrow,” he said.

By Lee Mannion @leemannion. Editing by Katy Migiro. 

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