Formerly Homeless Man Invents Portable Shelters to Help Others

A formerly homeless Utah man has used his insight to create and build “survival pods,” or mini-shelters, to be doled out to people who currently have nowhere to live.

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“I believe a person needs the dignity of something they can call their own, even if it’s only this,” Gary Pickering, a retired auto-body-shop owner in Pleasant Grove, told TV news station KSL Tuesday.

Pickering, 73, was technically homeless for three years following a divorce in the late 1980s, when he lived in his shop.

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“I lost my home after I signed everything over to my wife and seven children,” he told Yahoo! Shine. “But I had a roof over my head.” Because his shop was in an industrial area, he got to know many of the homeless men who lived in broken-down cars or in other corners of the area, eventually housing four in his van during a particularly harsh winter. He learned what it was like to not have a place to live, through the men he met, who explained that they didn’t go to shelters because of reasons ranging from “They steal my shoes” to “They won’t let me bring my dog.”

The lessons stuck with Pickering, who in 2009, long after he’d gotten back on his feet, saw a homeless man while driving through the nearby town of Provo. He went home and constructed a 2-foot-wide, 6-foot-long “cocoon,” mainly out of plywood. "But when I went to the find the man to give it to him, I couldn’t find him again," he recalled.

Pickering became passionate about coming up with the perfect temporary shelter. And after years of trial and error, he believes he’s finally perfected the “survival pod”: a 4-foot-wide, 8-foot-long micro house constructed from sheets of pressed wood, a wooden frame and a roof made of soft corrugated plastic called Coroplast.

There’s room enough inside for a sleeping bag, a kerosene lamp (there are vents in the structure), several small items, and even a specially designed portable toilet. Plus, the pods can be hooked up to electricity, like a trailer, if parked on already wired property with the permission of a homeowner.

Pickering has constructed five of the pods, personally funding them at a cost of about $500 apiece, he said.

“I didn’t do this as a business, I don’t want a business. I want to inspire other people,” Pickering told KSL, explaining to Yahoo! Shine that he’s created how-to DVDs and photos to show folks with the money and the desire to build the structures for people who need them. Then, homeless people could either pay for them slowly, “so they can have some pride in it, and say ‘It’s mine,’” or make a formal lending agreement.

The pods are built on wheels, like trailers, to get around zoning codes for buildings, Pickering added, so they could be placed in empty warehouses, hangars or on a piece of ground just outside of a city.

Since the story of his invention aired on KSL, he said he’s already had an inquiry from a man who would like to buy a pod “for emergencies.”

But mainly, they are meant to be temporary shelters for those in immediate, short-term crises. Considering the fact that 63 percent of Utah’s homeless population is without a home only temporarily, according to a 2012 report, the pods could really have an impact on the community.

“People can find jobs, of course they’ll move on and get their nice house back and have their cars and everything,” he said. “But till that time, this will help them.”

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