6 Aug 2016

Meet the guy who’s living ‘Homeless 2.0’

8:39 am on 6 August 2016

Made with real estate signs, duct tape and zip ties, this is as much a work of art as it is a shelter.


About 50 people sleep rough in the Wellington CBD, according to the council. Ben Sampey is one of them.

He lives in a mobile homeless shelter that from the outside looks like a painted bird skull on wheels. It’s long enough for a sleeping human being plus a backpack of possessions and has a lockable hatch so that Sampey can live undisturbed.

“Art school taught me to approach things a little bit differently to most people… It taught me to treat things like a painting, a problem to be solved, rather than the big scary issues that they are,” he said.

He constructed it with a small set of tools while he was sleeping rough under the Frank Kitts Park bridge by the waterfront’s lagoon.

“It was designed with the intent of not being a problem – so unlike a tent, I can legally park it, and also the only attention I get is people poking it because they don’t realise it’s a homeless shelter and not a piece of art.”

In January of this year, he moved up from his hometown of Christchurch and found some work, but never managed to get enough money together for his own place.

When he realised he had been relying on the couches and kindness of friends too long, he decided to take on homeless life both on principle and as a project.

Ben Sampey in his shelter.

Ben Sampey in his shelter. Photo: Rebekah Parsons-King/The Wireless

Homeless 2.0 is his attempt to come at homelessness with cable ties and a number eight wire mentality.

Sampey’s “nanoshelter” cost him about $200 and is warm, mobile and private – qualities he says you underestimate when you haven’t lived on street yourself.

“The designs I came up with behind a desk are radically different to what I have now. Because you have no idea. Things that are very simple in a house are very, very difficult for me.”

An increasing number of New Zealanders are “severely housing deprived” - they’re either on the street, in temporary housing like hostels, or live as a temporary resident in an overcrowded private property -  according to a study by Otago University this year.

One in 100 New Zealanders currently have nowhere to live, up from 1 in 130 in 2001.

Organisations like the Te Puea marae in Auckland have lead a well-publicised rush of charity to fill the gap, but Sampey is calling for another approach.

“From what I can see, in New Zealand no-one is coming at homelessness from a design and engineering perspective. It’s all about charities and giving people stuff,” he said.

The biggest problem of sleeping on the street is staying warm and dry enough to get some sleep.

“And privacy. Privacy is like gold to us, you never get it.”

The nanoshelter is an “inbetween solution” for homeless people that Sampey would one day like to reproduce for others, provided he could target the right market.

“But it’s a hard thing. You want to give these things to people that won’t just sell them, or dump them. There are those bad eggs that would go, hey! I’ll just sell it and go buy crack. And they would ruin it for everyone.”

But he says homeless people need autonomy more than anything else.

“A lot of these charities - they’re giving people stuff they don’t even need. That’s why a lot of people ask for money rather than stuff, because they know better what they need. And yeah, some people do buy booze… But so do regular people.”

So instead of waiting for help, Sampey took it on himself.

“If you’re not going to help, if the government isn’t going to get off its ass, people like me – we’re going to do it ourselves in really weird, informal ways.”

Council communications spokesman Richard MacLean says the council are pretty relaxed about people like Sampey taking their own shelter in the city centre.

“As long as these people aren’t blocking a thoroughfare, doing anything dangerous or posing a public health risk, they’re usually fine,” he said.

*Video filmed and edited by Rebekah Parsons-King.