(Photo: Courtesy projectgregory.com)

Billboards That Double as Homeless Housing May Soon Pop Up in the U.S.

An innovative idea that hopes to help people living on the streets has received international attention, but the leaders of the Slovakia-based project are still looking to make it a reality.
Sep 21, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Tasbeeh Herwees is a journalist and writer from Los Angeles. She has written for Good Magazine, The Majalla, TruthDig, L.A. Currents, and others.

Whether they’re promoting the latest Hollywood film, causing controversy, or eating smog, billboards are a ubiquitous part of modern life. Earlier this summer, urban design enthusiasts from the Slovakia-based firm DesignDevelop generated international excitement when they unveiled Project Gregory, an architectural proposal that presented an innovative solution to housing for the homeless: turning the eyesore of roadside advertising into a place to live.

Matej Nedorolik, DesignDevelop’s business manager, was responsible for fielding inquiries about the project from all over the globe—from both journalists and investors. Nedorolik has taken on that task because Project Gregory’s creator has insisted on staying anonymous. Pseudonymously referred to as “Gregory” by Nedorolik, the inventor of the concept first came up with the idea as a student project.

“Gregory was walking down the street, and he saw this big billboard along the motorway,” Nedorolik says. “So he started to think about it in a way. How can it be used in other ways? How can it be useful for other people?”

As people around the world began expressing their support, Gregory and the project’s team decided to take it beyond the student-project level. They created sketch plans for a two-bedroom apartment, which would include a kitchen, an office, a bed, and a bathroom.

The floor plan takes advantage of a unique feature of Slovakian billboards. Instead of being flat, upright surfaces, roadside billboards in the European nation are triangular. The design enables drivers approaching from either direction to see an advertisement; it also leaves a V-shaped space in the center, which the Project Gregory team believes is perfect for housing.

Giving the homeless a place to live would provide them with the stability they need to rebuild their lives—a place where they can sleep, take a shower, and feel safe. It’s also been proved to save cities money. An 85-unit pilot project constructed in Charlotte, N.C., in 2013 saved that city $1.8 million. Because residents weren’t sleeping outside in the elements, there were 447 fewer visits to emergency rooms and 372 fewer days spent in hospitals.

Not all places are as forward-thinking in their approach. In June in London, an apartment building came under fire for installing spikes on the ground to prevent the homeless from sleeping on the sidewalk. Later that month lawmakers in wealthy Norway began debating whether to throw people who beg for money on the streets in jail.

“With this project, we would like to give them a chance to get back into a normal life, to start with a new job or start with a new family or so on,” says Nedorolik.

Anyone interested in bringing it to life in their own city is welcome to use the blueprints as they please, he says. “It’s an open-source project, so anyone who wants to participate [in] it is very welcome.”

Although Project Gregory’s graphic mock-ups went viral this summer, the company initially had trouble finding serious financial backing. However, the effort’s leads are vetting investors to help fund the project—or at least to help them build a model and test out its feasibility.

“The plan for the future is, first, to make one model of the billboard where we can try all the technical abilities of the billboard house,” Nedorolik says.

This article is brought to you by IBM's People for Smarter Cities. TakePart is teaming up with IBM to highlight innovative ideas and creative change makers who are helping cities all around the world move forward.