Non-profit billion Bricks has an ambitious plan to house countless street dwellers all over the world.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Non-profit billion Bricks has an ambitious plan to house countless street dwellers all over the world.
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Growing up in a lower middle-class household in a small town in India, it was not uncommon for Anurag Srivastava to find a homeless person dead on a street close to his home. Those discoveries left a searing impression on Anurag. 

The 50-year-old is a firm believer that human development can take place only when a person has a roof over his or her head but, at that time, there was nothing he could do. 

India’s perennial homeless problem isn’t getting better and, according to a 2011 government census, 1.8 million people are living in the open. It is more acute in urban areas, where the number shot up by 20 per cent within a decade, compared to a 28 per cent drop in the countryside. The trend is not difficult to pin down. 

Prasoon Kumar, 39, an architect and urban designer, says people who migrate to cities often find jobs that don’t pay enough to afford housing. They end up living in the streets. In winter the problem bites and many die from freezing. 

The ambition to get people off the streets, not only in India but in Asia and elsewhere, burned in Anurag and Prasoon.

But it was not until October 2013 that both men were able to create a platform and start finding solutions. 

By then, Anurag had been working and living in Singapore for two decades, and had founded interior design firm Space Matrix Group with his wife. He also started two other companies, venture capital fund Jungle Ventures and One Animation. 

After moving to Singapore from Los Angeles and Hong Kong, Prasoon had also been working for the couple for close to four years but wanted to do something that made an impact on more people’s lives and not a few. 

In 2013, he participated in the DBS Social Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. Together with the team he formed during the bootcamp, he won first place as well as some seed funding and the confidence to move ahead. That’s also when his and Anurag’s ambitions to tackle homelessness clicked. With Anurag backing the idea, billionBricks, a non-profit organisation, was born. 

Their first project, a permanent shelter for about 100 street children in Mumbai, was funded by DBS Bank in 2013. They next built houses for homeless families in Cambodia and then designed a school for 240 stateless children in Kota Kinabalu. 

But billionBricks’ focus, says Anurag, is to create solutions that can be passed on to others to build upon. Existing foundations, he adds, had been focusing on many things to alleviate poverty such as providing food and water but not many paid enough attention to providing shelters for those without accommodation. 

“From the beginning, our vision has been to find solutions that are scalable to solve the problem of homelessness,” explains Anurag. “Our belief is that human progress does not start unless you have a roof over your head. 

“If you go to the slums of Indonesia and India, you find the kids are incredibly talented. The moment they get a roof over their heads, they start to study, perform and do well.” 

Their work was in the global spotlight recently, after Prasoon created and built the Weather Hyde tent, which is weather-proof, easy to set up and can accommodate a family of five. It was an idea born of the 2013 riots in northern India that left thousands of families homeless. More than 50 children died when temperatures dropped to freezing point in the night.

Celebrities such as actor Ashton Kutcher and rapper Lil Wayne hailed the tent that could save millions of lives, after seeing a video of it posted on social media. Almost 200,000 people worldwide shared it on Facebook, garnering over 23 million views and 338,000 “likes”.

In a pilot test that lasted six months, 12 homeless families in New Delhi were given the Weather Hyde tent.

“I could not imagine this, but one of the families moved into the tent with their beds and everything they had and called it their first home ever,” says Prasoon. “A lady among them, who was born in the streets and is now 23, has finally found a job.”

But the tent is only a temporary solution and billion Bricks is working with a company in China to produce about 2,000 units a month. It is not enough. Each costs about $270 to produce and Anurag hopes to have a viable business model that would entice entrepreneurs to mass-produce them.

Adds Prasoon: “The homeless in India are already paying $1 a night for a blanket and, if they were given the Weather Hyde, they could pay it off within a few months. This is a viable proposition for businesses.”

billion Bricks sustains its impact through its three-prong financial model: garnering funding through partnerships, like what it has done with DBS, offering consulting services and presenting market based product solutions.

Working with DBS is one of them. In May 2016, for its 5th year anniversary, DBS Insignia raised funds for four charities, including billion Bricks. It is also supporting billion Bricks’ Weather Hyde project.

One idea is for DBS Insignia Visa Infinite Cardholders to redeem rewards points – often used in exchange for travel miles and vouchers – for a Weather Hyde tent for a person in need. For DBS Insignia, it’s all about making a difference, and the future of business lies in being a force for good.