Providing a bit of home for those who live on the streets

UBC and community aim to provide secure storage for Kelowna’s homeless

Shopping carts used by Kelowna’s homeless are going high-tech thanks to engineers at UBC’s Okanagan campus.

In a unique industry-university-community project, Kelowna-based Waterplay Solutions, Metro Community Church, the RCMP, City of Kelowna, and UBC’s School of Engineering are hoping to develop a personal belongings cart — a moveable and securable buggy that can hold a homeless person’s possessions. It’s common practice for homeless people to use shopping carts to house their belongings.

“Essentially, it is difficult for a homeless person to manage their belongings,” explains UBC research engineer Bryn Crawford. “Often, they can’t leave them at an overnight shelter, and if they have an appointment, or end up at the hospital, they end up leaving all their belongings by the side of the road. Often, those items will go missing and then they have to start collecting them all over again.”

Crawford, who works with the Okanagan node of UBC’s Composites Research Network, says the goal of this undertaking is to make the life of a homeless person easier.

Local manufacturer Waterplay Solutions, who has contributed more than $9,500 in-kind to the project, will help with the prototype and the goal is to have units ready for distribution in Kelowna within 18 months.

But, says Crawford, the entire project is much more than just an engineering challenge. A personal belongings carrier needs to be secure, lightweight, durable, and should probably fold down or come apart, so it can perhaps fit inside a vehicle, a shelter, or even ambulance if the need arose.

“At first, we looked at this from an engineering perspective,” says Crawford. “What type of materials can we use that will be cheap, lightweight, and durable? The next step is to come up with a design that must be easy to manufacture, and easy to transport around the community. And it has to be affordable.”

The project has taken on a life of its own within the School of Engineering. First-year students were tasked with coming up with a design as part of the Applied Science Design Challenge Competition, and fourth-year students are working on the detailed design aspects and a method of manufacture as part of their capstone (year-end) project. In parallel, graduate students are researching the best hybrid material options that can meet both design and usage requirements of the cart, along with a maximum durability.

And there are those people who live on the street. For this project to fly, it needs their buy-in, says Crawford.

“Suddenly, it became less of an engineering problem and more of a community-wide project. We have a lot of people and community stakeholders who are taking a part in this personal belongings cart project.”

Sandy Shier, with Metro Community Church, says having a sense of ownership, even if it is a shopping cart filled with worn-out possessions and old blankets, is part of survival on the street.

“One major issue associated with the homelessness lifestyle is members of our community cannot secure their belongings and leave them in a safe place while they attend appointments, get a meal, or access other support services,” says Shier. “As such, they are stressfully forced to live from minute to minute around securing their belongings. This limits their ability to get a hand up and the problems further compromise their quality of life. This is a first small step in restoring their dignity.”

The project is initially funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Engage grant. Pamela Giberson, NSERC Research and Innovation Development officer, explains that the $25,000 Engage grant provides an easy, low-risk way for private companies and researchers to work together on technical, research-based challenges.

“The NSERC Engage program has been wildly popular, with almost 6,000 projects supported across the country since 2010,” says Giberson. “In fact, UBC has been the most successful Engage grant recipient in Canada since NSERC introduced the program six years ago, with more than 500 projects supported to date.”

UBC Associate Prof. Abbas Milani, Principal Investigator of the project and Coordinator of the Okanagan node of Composites Research Network, says the cart is the perfect example of the community working with the university to solve an issue that affects so many people.

Milani’s composites team is involved because the material needed to make the cart must be a lightweight and sturdy composite. And Milani is thrilled that this project involves a large part of School of Engineering and UBC as a whole, as many people are working together to take the carts from an idea to a feasible and working system that will be embraced by people living on the streets.

“Everyone is taking a sense of pride in this and it’s not totally up to UBC as we’re also working with our outside partners,” says Milani. “We have people helping from our undergrad and graduate students to faculty members — people are getting involved in different stages of the design and production because they all want to make this work.”

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