One Woman’s Mission To Create Cardboard Houses For The Homeless

On some level, we all want to change to the world. To leave a fingerprint on human history. To be a part of something bigger. For most of us, it’s a daunting proposition, easily abandoned when “real life” gets in the way. But not for Tina Hovsepian — architect and founder of Cardborigami.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Hovsepian was deeply affected by the poverty she saw around her. “I constantly witnessed homelessness,” she says. “And it was always in the back of my head: Why does it have to be this way? Why are there people living on the streets?” It troubled her to see adults and children struggling to survive without any measure of comfort, and she knew it was a problem she couldn’t ignore. She knew she had to do something.

Hovsepian went on to study architecture at USC, but never forgot about the plight of the less fortunate. In fact, she continually thought of the people she had seen on L.A.’s Skid Row.

“Every city has an area that you can call Skid Row,” she explains. “And in L.A., it’s a whole city block, if not more, where people are just living in these horrific conditions on the streets. And it’s just a very terrifying condition to see and witness.”

Though she was moved, Hovsepian wasn’t sure what she could do. Then she began studying Buddhism, and it completely changed her view of the world. “The philosophy teaches that we’re all interconnected in some way,” she says of her practice. “And that helping others, essentially, is like helping yourself and making the world a better place.”

As Hovsepian grew more involved with Buddhism, she became increasingly convinced that she needed to be a more active part of creating positive change. She thought about the danger and discomfort the homeless population in her city faced, and focused her energy on solutions.

“I had this studio,” she says, “for a semester-long class where we had an open-ended project. I focused on helping the homeless community in L.A.”

As her project progressed, Hovsepian saw the struggles people faced finding comfortable places to sleep and became fixated on the idea of creating portable shelters. She started to seek out building materials — exploring scores of options before finally settling on cardboard. She liked it for many reasons.

“It is insulated,” she says. “It’s structural, it’s readily available and it’s recyclable.”

Then the architecture major began to explore innovative building ideas for her structures. These weren’t going to be ordinary boxes. Hovsepian was set on making something beautiful.

“The idea for origami really stemmed from the material choice,” she says, “since cardboard is kind of like a huge sheet of paper and I was thinking, what can you do with paper? Really the coolest thing is folding it. It comes from a flat piece, but it can become a whole different sculpture (with folding).”

It wasn’t an easy learning curve. But through trial and error, Hovsepian completed the project for her class and ended up with a large, structurally sound origami shelter. She called it “Cardborigami,” and it was an instant hit. It was compact, easy to assemble, and proved a far better option on the streets than a tent.

“Because of the folding pattern,” Hovsepian explains, “it’s more structural than a tent is. It resists impact loads and wind loads much better, and when you’re inside, if it’s cold outside, it’ll be more warm. If it’s warm outside, it’ll be cooler inside.”

The people Hovsepian hoped to help overwhelmingly agreed. When she beta-tested her shelters on the street, 90% of people said that it was a better sleeping arrangement than their current set up.

Since that initial project, Hovsepian has continued improving her technique. While the original prototype was much larger, now the homes are 6 foot by 4 foot structures (enough room for two adults to sleep and sit up in comfortably). Her goal is to provide the homeless with some measure of safety and comfort so that they can concentrate their energies on finding work rather than having to make day-to-day sleeping arrangements. She hopes that even a small bit of help will lead to large, positive changes in their lives.

It’s an ambitious endeavor, but one Hovsepian doesn’t shy away from. As a result of her commitment, organizations around the world have started to take notice. She was recognized by the Stevens Institute of Innovation, she received the 2015 Mother of Invention Award from Toyota, and she was honored as a humanitarian by the Muhammad Ali Center.

The accolades have brought publicity and publicity leads to resources — all of which has helped Hovsepian to realize her childhood dream of helping others. She says, “Our vision with Cardborigami is really to have a global reach where we could provide these instant shelters to anyone that might need it, whether it’s due to poverty, natural disaster, refugee crises or whatever it may be. That would be our long-term vision.”

Hovsepian doesn’t just want her structures to help the people of Los Angeles; she wants to spread her shelters around the world. And she’s made great strides in doing so. After the earthquake in Nepal, Hovsepian leaped into action. Cardborigami provided shelters to those displaced, and she also helped to rebuild a school, a library, and roads in remote villages.

She’s not stopping there, either. Her organization has developed a four-step plan to help people secure mental health care, jobs, and more permanent places to live.

“This year, we did a fund-raiser where we plan to implement our jobs program for homeless youth,” she explains. “We actually hired homeless youth to do the construction of shelters. So far we’ve worked with five homeless youth in collaboration with the LGBT youth center, and they’ve all found jobs, which is pretty amazing. Our goal is to expand that program.”

Hovsepian is excited about the progress Cardborigami has been able to achieve in the world, but feels her work is never done. And as such, she’ll continually be striving to help more and more people. “I feel that it is something that I will always be working on, because it’s something that addresses such a big need in the world,” she says. “It really applies to a lot of different scenarios. So for me, I think success is just to continue doing these programs and continue expanding our reach. If you can do that and also have a positive impact on the world or help people, I think that is what success means to me.”

Changing the world is a tall order, but Tina Hovsepian has proven she’s more than up to the task, and we’re excited to celebrate her for it.

You can learn more about Cardborigami and how you can help Tina Hovsepian provide more shelters for the homeless at their website.