What You Need to Know about Shipping Container Showers for the Homeless

Rohit Varma
Oct 30, 2018 · 4 min read

One important approach to mitigating the issue of homelessness involves using spaces as creatively as possible. This includes everything from building tiny homes for transitional housing to converting abandoned malls into shelters.

Recently, a Los Angeles nonprofit announced it would convert used shipping containers into showers for individuals experiencing homelessness. This measure aimed at hygiene serves to help raise the self-esteem of these individuals and serves a practical purpose by helping them secure job interviews.

In Los Angeles, the number of people experiencing homelessness has nearly doubled in the past six years. Three-quarters of these individuals consider their homes to be campers, tents, cars and other forms of nontraditional shelter, numbering nearly 41,000 according to the Los Angeles Times.

The people living in these situations often have limited access to showers. This can impact their sense of dignity when it comes to job hunting or even socializing with people.

While many people consider consistent bathing as a given, people experiencing homelessness often go without showering if they are not connected to a shelter. For many of these individuals, the only option is a quick wash in a public bathroom.

A Creative Use of a Readily Available Resource

In part because of national and international trade deficits, shipping containers sit abandoned at ports and storage yards across the country, becoming an eyesore for nearby communities.

Research found that it actually requires less effort and energy to refurbish the containers than it would to melt them down into scrap metal, making the use of shipping containers more cost-efficient. In addition, they can be made mobile easily by attaching wheels. Shipping containers have been used as temporary housing by the military and in emergency situations for a number of years. In Europe, several countries incorporated the containers into housing projects and customized home designs.

Design with a Focus on Sustainability and Impact

Enter U.S. military veteran Francis O’Brien, executive director of Take It Back Foundation, and Dr. Tony Chanh Huu Nguyen, president of the non-profit Global Community Foundation (GCF), the organization behind the new proposal. They believe this abundant resource can serve an important role in alleviating a prominent problem throughout the United States.

Nguyen is the primary driver behind the new project with his organization Global Community Foundation. He connected to the downtown Los Angeles homeless community to better understand needs before launching the project.

His organization will install water tanks on the containers to collect and store rainwater and water which has been reclaimed from laundry facilities for use in flushing toilets. These two features will be added in addition to the showers.

Moreover, the use of solar energy will make it possible to take these containers virtually everywhere — even if an electrical grid is not available. If more water is needed, the containers will have a metered line so water suppliers, such as local businesses, can be reimbursed for the expense.

The current project hopes to go beyond providing temporary solutions. While shelters are necessary in the short term, they do not address underlying issues like self-esteem and a lack of employment opportunities. Shipping containers have the potential to meet both of these needs.

Using Shipping Containers to Provide Affordable Housing

Last year, KTGY Architecture + Planning in Los Angeles announced it would use shipping containers to complete an 84-unit transitional housing project located in Westlake. Using containers significantly reduces the cost of building housing. This structure, named Hope on Alvarado, has inspired plans for similar developments in Los Angeles.

The building will have four stories and provide both studios and one-bedroom apartments. In addition, the structure will have a central courtyard and reserved space for each resident to securely park a bike. The ground floor of the development will house support services for the residents. Since the interior finishes of the containers can be completed offsite, such projects actually take little time. Once ground is broken, the development is expected to take only six months to complete.

A similar plan was suggested for Baltimore in early 2017. The project, Hope Village, hoped to create 100 new units to replace the housing the city demolished because of deterioration. An organization has already stepped forward with financing. It considers Hope Village a pilot project that, if successful, could pave the way for using shipping containers to build more communities to house the population of people experiencing homelessness.

The Hope Village project will also be replicated in Orlando, Florida, where connections have already been made with county officials to get the project started. Most important, Hope Village does not see itself as transitional housing. Instead, it is considered permanent housing which can be built quickly and cheaply while maintaining a high standard of safety and comfort.

Rohit Varma

Written by

Rohit Varma, MD, MPH, is an internationally recognized opthalmologist and researcher who focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of glaucoma.

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