It’s a Gas
Being homeless has a great many challenges and among the most significant is staying warm during the winter months. Naturally, the optimal choice is to find shelter. People find themselves living outdoors for a great many reasons and often these same causes are the hurdle to finding permanent or even temporary places to lay their head. Most large cities provide shelters, but space is often limited, and the rules can be heavy handed. Additionally, homeless shelters can be more dangerous than living on the streets leading many people to choose some form of long-term camping. These camp sites can be limited to an individual but typically they cluster with one another for safety. A great deal can be said about the housing epidemic in America. In my hometown, like many urban areas, it is a divisive topic. On one hand you have the NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) groups that just want them to go away and avoid the problem, out of site out of mind. Luckily, there are just as many if not more organizations and individuals who seek to support this community either by providing supplies, food or aiding them in finding services. I am a fervent member of one such group and after 4 years of involvement have founding my niche.
When the temperatures dip to dangerous levels you have a few options to generate enough heat to stave off frostbite and hypothermia. Starting a fire is the most obvious but there is the equally clear problem of smoke and the fire spreading. Clever campers will build a tiny heater by combining an upturned clay pot with candles to trap and safely dissipate the heat. In a well-insulated tent this can often be enough to generate and trap enough warmth to last the night so long as care is taken to not nock it over. When we first started visiting homeless camps we carted out supplies for this purpose but after some near disasters sought a safer method.
While it may seem like a no brainer, we landed on using propane, but the challenge is purchasing the pricey heaters and transporting the gas to the campers. In the winter of 2018, I was contacted by a member of our group who wanted to help but didn’t know how. After explaining the various challenges, we were experiencing she informed me that her brother owned a successful industrial gas company in a nearby town. We set up a time to visit him at work and after a brief introduction she told her younger sibling, “he’s helping people, give him what he needs”. Without hesitation he offered me as much propane as I needed. I was surprised as to how easily it all happened but now faced the challenge of setting up the network.
I am but one member of a network all across the city, so I reached out to leaders from the city center, and suburbs in every direction. Seeing a golden opportunity, we launched a charity drives to galvanize our base to help acquire the necessary machinery. I did some online digging and found the Mr. Heater Little Buddy has a low oxygen sensor that shuts off automatically and is designed for small, confined spaces like a tent. These heaters relied on the small 1b tanks however my propane connection could only fill the 20lb size tanks like you would use in a BBQ grill.
It was at this point I stumbled upon a YouTube video that showed how, with the right equipment and safety precautions you could transfer the gas in its liquid form from one tank to another. This took a great deal of trial and error to perfect. I began by using a simple adapter to connect the STYDDI small tanks to the POL type large tanks and used gravity to allow the propane to pass from one bottle to the other. The problem here being that the larger tank could not be easily balanced above the smaller one and as such sat at an angle leaving a gap inside the small tank that could not be filled. Furthermore, the air already in the 1lb tank would resist the transfer unless you found a way to exercise the release valve on the top offset from the main port. In summation it was not a perfect system and it took significant work to get a tank 75% full.
Ultimately, I arrived at a more streamline method that uses an adapter hose and has an on-off valve. The large tanks sit on a brick wall above the smaller tanks that are each placed on a scale resting on the ground below. The scales are calibrated to the weight of an empty small tank so that when they reach their target the flow is severed by flipping the control valve. Finally by freezing the small tanks the contents flows much faster from the larger, warmer tanks which alleviates the need to “burp” the tanks. Now when it begins to get cold in late fall our network kicks into gear with me filling tanks and dropping them with liaisons around town who in turn distribute them to those in need swapping full tanks for empties. The empties are brought back to me and the process continues to keep our most vulnerable population warm. Each year we add more heaters and more camps to our effort and so it grows.