$400 tents for the homeless

Mr Prasoon Kumar is the co-founder of billionBricks, the non-profit organisation behind weatherHyde tent, which has benefited thousands of homeless people around the world. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

The weatherHyde tent is a weather-proof, women-friendly shelter that has benefited thousands of homeless people in countries such as India, Bangladesh, the United States and Canada.

Each of these insulated tents costs US$300 (S$408). And Mr Prasoon Kumar, the 41-year-old co-founder of billionBricks, the Singapore-based non-profit behind the tents, does not give these shelters out for free - unless a person is in dire need.

"People are quite surprised when I tell them the homeless come and purchase them. They think people are homeless because they have no money, but the majority have jobs."

"We don't look at the homeless as beneficiaries, but as our customers," adds Mr Kumar, who does the equivalent of "door-to-door" selling, where he speaks to potential customers to find out their needs.

He believes that this way of doing things makes the organisation "more accountable" to the people they are serving, who can negotiate how much they want to pay.

Mr Kumar, who grew up in India, decided to create the weatherHyde tents after the 2013 communal riots there left 50,000 homeless.

So he spent time travelling across towns in India to see how people lived on the streets and eventually came up with the design.

Mr Kumar, who quit his architecture job to start billionBricks, began trialling these tents in New Delhi in 2016. Since then, about 500 of them have benefited 2,500 people in the world.

One of billionBricks' core principles, he adds, is "never to design poorly for the poor".

Each tent, which can be set up in 10 minutes without tools, is large enough for two adults and three children. The material is opaque and features a triple-layer cover that provides insulation, while reflective material inside traps body heat. In the summer, the cover can be reversed to reflect solar heat so the users stay cool.

The tents are manufactured in China.

Mr Kumar has a trove of stories of people who have used the tents. These range from a homeless man who bought a tent so his daughters could have a place to study, to women who used it as a place to wash themselves in private, to one young woman in Delhi who put a bed inside her tent and hung paintings on the "wall" of the tent, her first home.

Some people in Singapore buy the tents for recreational purposes.

BillionBricks is partnering American non-governmental organisation includeU, which is creating a facility where staff with disabilities will manufacture about 200 tents by the end of the year.

On the work billionBricks does, Mr Kumar says: "We want to make it into a movement, to bring people together to think about global problems and use design as a way to solve them."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2018, with the headline $400 tents for the homeless. Subscribe