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Reengineering the cardboard box

A Los Angeles philanthropist's epiphany leads to durable mobile tents for the homeless.

December 10, 2008|Martha Groves | Groves is a Times staff writer.

Christopher Raynor's father kicked him out when he was 13, after his stepmother interrupted an orgy in his bedroom and the teen jammed a broom handle against her throat.

Now 40, Raynor has lived much of his life in the rough. His current domicile is a patch of dirt behind some pampas grass and coastal sage scrub where Pacific Coast Highway meets Temescal Canyon Road, in the backyard of Pacific Palisades.

Until a few weeks ago, he dozed on a thin mattress in the open air. Now he beds down in a snug mobile shelter called an EDAR (short for Everyone Deserves a Roof), a covered contraption that looks like the offspring of a shopping cart and a pop-up camper.

Raynor's mother died of stomach cancer, his father was shot to death, and he himself has served time in jail. He spends much of each day intoxicated and grimy. He despises most people.

But he likes his EDAR.

"This is one of the greatest damn gifts you could ever give to anybody," he says.

The EDAR is the brainchild of Peter Samuelson, a philanthropist and film producer whose credits include "Revenge of the Nerds" and "Arlington Road." His life could hardly be more different from Raynor's.

Samuelson grew up in a middle-class London household where performing charitable work was expected. His father, Sydney, founded Samuelson Film Service, a supplier of film and TV equipment, and in 1995 was knighted for his service to the British film industry.

Peter Samuelson went to Cambridge University on a full scholarship, earned a master's degree in English literature and became fluent in French. He started in the film business as an interpreter for U.S. companies operating in Africa and Europe.

In 1975, after living off and on in Los Angeles, he settled here permanently, married an accountant and had four children.

"If you become an American on purpose, it's a very special thing," Samuelson, 57, said over breakfast at Nate'n Al deli in Beverly Hills. "America is not just a land of opportunity but also of personal responsibility. There's an obligation to lift up society."

In 1982, that obligation smacked Samuelson in the face when a cousin in London introduced him to a boy with an inoperable brain tumor. The child's great wish was to see Disneyland. Samuelson and his cousin footed the bill to fly the boy and his mother to Los Angeles for a two-week whirlwind of wish fulfillment.

"He went back to London clutching his Mickey Mouse ears and died," Samuelson said.

The experience prompted Samuelson to start the Starlight Foundation, an international charity that provides psychological and social services to seriously ill children and their families.

In 1990, he brought together director Steven Spielberg and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, among others, to create the Starbright Foundation, which develops software and other products to help children cope with the medical, emotional and social challenges of their illnesses. In 2004, Starlight and Starbright merged to become the Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation. Another Samuelson charity, First Star, advocates for abused and neglected children.

Three years ago, on his twice-weekly bike rides to the beach from his Holmby Hills house, Samuelson realized that he was seeing more homeless people. For three weeks, he interviewed dozens of them -- men, women and children.

"Where do you spend the night?" he asked one woman. She led him by the hand into the bushes and showed him a large cardboard Sub-Zero box.

"That was my epiphany moment," Samuelson said. "I've got the refrigerator. She's got the box. What is wrong with this picture?"

A 2007 homeless census revealed that on any given day there were more than 73,000 homeless people in Los Angeles County. (Some critics contend the number is overstated.) Downtown's skid row had the greatest concentration, with more than 5,000.

Samuelson said he was shocked by the demographics: About 60% of the homeless were men, 24% were women, and 15% were under 18. (Adult transgender individuals accounted for the rest.)

"I've always believed society is defined by how we deal with our weakest links," he said. "The best of America is when we take care of the less fortunate."

His first instinct was to build shelters, but then he did the math. Building a bed in a facility runs $50,000 to $100,000. The cost to house all of the county's street denizens would run into the billions. Besides, many of them resist services. So he thought: What is there that's better than a damp box on a rainy night even if it's not as good as a bed?

The idea of a mobile, single-person shelter popped to mind.

Samuelson sponsored a contest at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena to design his "widget."

Eric Lindeman and Jason Zasa took the honors, with a mobile shopping cart-like apparatus. The cart features bins to hold cans, bottles and other recyclables collected by day. It folds out to create a sleeping platform, topped by a canvas cover with zippers and windows.

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