Tent-safe DIY heaters by the Portland-based collective Heater Block (images courtesy Seattle mutual aid group)

Last winter, 221 unhoused people died from exposure to cold on the streets of Seattle, one of the highest numbers on record for the city. This grim data is only expected to get worse this year as Omicron continues to spread and as new Mayor Bruce Harrel seeks to keep his campaign promise to eradicate encampments across the city. 

And lately, the weather in Seattle has gotten cold. Extremely cold.

“We’ve seen many people on the brink of hypothermia who are barely getting by,” said mutual aid worker Meadow in an interview with Hyperallergic. The worker preferred to use a pseudonym to protect her identity, saying that her group has been facing attacks by police officers and right-wing groups.    

“You know, blue lips, just completely unable to catch their breath because they’re so cold,” Meadow continued. “And we try and get people into cold weather shelters, but they have a capacity and they’re not open all day.”

The Seattle neighborhood mutual aid group Meadow is a part of was formed during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 and has since been helping their unhoused neighbors by giving out medical care and hot meals, among other harm reduction methods, such as distributing Narcan, a drug used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

During a recent snowstorm, the group was out every day handing out baked potatoes, wrapped in aluminum foil, which could act as temporary heaters if stuffed into a sleeping bag.

The DIY heater uses alcohol instead of propane and costs only $7 to build

But now, thanks to a new device Macgyvered by Portland-based anarchist collective Heater Bloc, they can ditch the potatoes.

Heater Bloc has concocted a DIY, tent-safe heater made of copper tubing, a mason jar, some epoxy, and a T-shirt as a wick, among other affordable materials at a total cost of $7. 

“It was very much an iterative design,” a Heater Bloc collective member who preferred to remain anonymous, told Hyperallergic in a conversation via Twitter. “Members of our group have been working on different ideas for years to help keep houseless people warm. This year we wanted to do better and started researching and testing different designs.”

Instead of propane, the heater uses isopropyl alcohol as fuel. This reduces the danger of fumes causing carbon monoxide poisoning as the flame extinguishes if the heater tips over.

“The burner is fairly old technology, but no one really focused on making it useful,” the Heater Bloc collective member added. “It was kind of a fun engineering gimmick to experiment with on a free weekend.”

With the cost of propane spiking up to 44% due to pandemic-related supply chain issues, many unhoused people are returning to burning trash or wood to stay warm, which can be toxic.

According to Heater Bloc, the final step in the design was figuring out how to contain an open flame in a tent safely. The solution they came up with is to build a metal enclosure around the heaters and cover it with terracotta pots as lids to provide radiant heat.

Heater Bloc has made their design open-sourced and accessible through a Google Doc that includes a detailed build guide. Meanwhile, mutual aid groups across the country have adopted and innovated on the original design, the collective said.

“It took us a while to really figure out how to build them well enough to teach someone else,” the collective member said. “We tried to make the instructions easy enough to understand that anyone with basic tools and desire could work out how to make these.” 

During the winter, unhoused communities will often experience an uptick in overdoses, street brawls, and forced co-sleeping to stay warm, which can lead to more COVID-19 infections in encampments.

But thanks to the DIY heaters, Meadow said, “we’ve seen less forced co-sleeping, which has reduced people’s exposure to COVID, as well as fewer overdoses, and less drug use in general. And now unhoused people have started to cook with it, as well as stay warm!” She added that her group and others have distributed over 120 heaters to unhoused people in the Seattle area over the past month.

Meadow, herself a former unhoused person, holds little faith that the city would be able to respond to the escalating houselessness crisis the way mutual aid groups and anarchist collectives can: by building trust with feet on the ground, being nimble, and finding creative ways to solve problems.

“We are non-hierarchical. That gives everybody the opportunity to be heard, play to their strengths, and try new things,” she said. “[This] is how we come up with things like Heater Bloc.”

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Amber Cortes

Amber Cortes is a writer and journalist based in Seattle. Find her other work at: www.youneverknowradio.com.