Gimme Shelter!

If Bill Moss can teach Arabs how to sew tents, he can probably teach America how to house its homeless.

At least house them temporarily so they won't freeze to death in the long, cold night.

House them in cardboard.
This famous artist-tentmaker-designer doesn't care that some people think he's nuts to apply his talents to a project that will never make him much money. Since moving to the Phoenix area last November, he's met the homeless face to face--helped one man survive the night recently--and he insists he must do this. "If I could save one person from freezing to death, I'd be doing something," he says. "I think artists have to bite the bullet and become more socially minded."

That doesn't mean slapping together ugly cardboard boxes and calling them home, he adds. "There's no reason these temporary houses have to be ugly," he says as he unfolds a model shelter that resembles a dome. It is the latest addition to the line of Bill Moss creations: Some of the country's most popular camping tents, one of which is on permanent display in the Museum of Modern Art; fabric sculptures bought by the beautiful people at New York art galleries; stretched canvas pieces pictured in Aramis ads and displayed in the theatre at the Frank Lloyd Wright community of Scottsdale's Taliesin West, which Moss now calls home.

There is no reason, he assures in his best salesman's voice, to worry that his paper structures are too flimsy to save lives. "People think of paper as something you write on or something you wipe your butt with, but not something to live in," he allows. "But you can do anything with paper."

He hopes to prove that statement in March when he tests his temporary paper houses with the homeless of the Phoenix area. "I don't call them homeless shelters, I call them disaster-preparedness shelters," he explains. "Being homeless is just one type of disaster. And it doesn't make any difference why. If you've lost your home because you lost your job or because there was an earthquake, you're still homeless and it's a disaster."

BILL MOSS WILL NEVER forget the night he met John. Moss was helping to serve food to the homeless in Mesa when a friend interrupted, saying there was an emergency. Someone had reported a man desperately ill in a nearby park. "We drove to this park, and, at first, it looked like it was barren," Moss recalls. "But when you got closer to the trees, there were people all over the place. This guy was covered only by an old shirt. He was shaking so bad, he had to be picked up; he couldn't even walk. We got him in the car. He looked at me and said, `Thank you for taking the time.' I didn't know what to say. I don't know how to carry on a conversation with someone who could be dying."

Moss drove to a rundown Mesa hotel that accepts housing vouchers issued by the city. He watched as some of the homeless waiting for rooms gave up their vouchers so John could have a warm place for the night. "I told him, `You've got a lot of friends,' and he said, `The homeless people are the best friends I've ever had.' This guy was about 35, Anglo, well-spoken."

John stayed in the hotel a couple of days--rooms reportedly "very dirty" and hardly habitable but warm enough to give relief. A few days later John came walking through the food line. He was on the streets again, still looking for a job, still finding none. Moss is convinced that "all he really needed to keep from dying was that room."

The experience was one of those that made Moss speed up his designs in order to get his cardboard shelters into immediate production. Another occurred the night he spent with migrant workers in the citrus orchards around Chandler. "I go to the orange groves to see what people need," he explains. "I don't want to go in like the press. They come in, photograph every damn thing and then leave. They don't want to get involved anymore than anyone else."

Moss has gotten involved. "We went out into the orchards, and there were all these people living in the trees," he recalls. "These people have jobs. They're pickers during the day, but they have no shelter. None. They sit around a fire with a pot of beans cooking. They brought things for us to sit on and asked us to stay for dinner. We tried to pay them, telling them we'd have bought dinner anyway, but they wouldn't take anything. I asked them what they needed. They said they needed jackets because they were cold. They said they needed shelter."

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Jana Bommersbach