Anarchists are Building DIY Heaters to Keep Unhoused People Warm

Open-source blueprints are inspiring activists to distribute tent-safe heaters that can be built for as little as $7.
A makeshift heater built by activists in Portland, Ore.
Photo by The Javs Cat

As temperatures fall sharply and the number of unhoused people swells throughout the United States, anarchists are forming a decentralized network that builds and distributes tent-safe, alcohol-based heaters to those without shelter. 

“The project wasn’t something new, it was developed over the years, in many different forms,” wrote members of HeaterBloc, a Portland-based collective that released the open-source guide for building heaters, in a message to Motherboard. “It starts off with an idea, then that idea is built upon. It evolves, it spreads, it takes on a life of its own. This year, we were just fortunate enough to settle on a safe and cost efficient design.” 

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The units cost about seven dollars each when components are purchased in bulk, and they can be used for both cooking and warming small indoor spaces for hours at a time. If the heater tips over, the flame automatically burns out and, with proper ventilation, the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is minimal because isopropyl alcohol combusts cleanly. 

The instructional guide has been translated into several languages, and groups that build and distribute the DIY heaters have popped up in rural areas and major cities across the US, including in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York City, San Diego, Atlanta, Tacoma, Kansas City, Dallas, Kalamazoo, Elm Fork, Texas, and Spokane, Washington. Some groups are beginning to explore adapting the design for use in refugee camps, in areas that have experienced severe power outages such as Texas, and for the increasing number of people in the US who cannot afford utilities.  

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A DIY tent heater built by the Portland-based collective HeaterBloc

A DIY tent heater built by the Portland-based collective HeaterBloc

In accordance with anarchist principles, the network is operating non-hierarchically and cooperatively. “Seeing the community that’s sprung up around this need and seeing people take real action to help houseless communities stay warm all over the country is incredible because this is literally saving people’s lives,” wrote the collective. “That’s all that really matters.” 

From 2000 to 2019, nearly 5 million people died from cold conditions globally. In the US, anywhere from 580,000 to 1.5 million people were unhoused prior to the pandemic, and a lack of financial support during the crisis has exacerbated the problem. In many places, local governments and law enforcement have responded by destroying tent communities with bulldozers and attempting to force people into shelters that are oftentimes crowded and unsafe—if shelter is offered at all.

“It's hard to convey to the average person what it feels like to be unhoused in the winter,” wrote the HeaterBloc members in their statement. “An inescapable coldness that fills your lungs with ice and numbs your limbs. A damp cold that exhausts your body, one that you’d do anything to escape.”

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Meadows*, a formerly unhoused member of a Seattle-based mutual aid group that is building the heaters, told Motherboard that the project is reducing harm on a variety of levels. Unhoused people are often forced to burn trash in their tents to stay warm, which puts them at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and brain damage. Heaters also preserve people’s autonomy and safety by allowing them to reject co-sleeping for survival and they reduce drug use.

“There's a really high percentage of unhoused people that don't use drugs, and the reason why they became unhoused has nothing to do with drug use,” said Meadows, who asked to be identified with a pseudonym because mutual aid groups are often targeted by police and right-wing agitators. “However, drugs make you feel warmer, they also kind of help you pass the time, and they make the fight or flight situation more bearable. When mutual aid groups are actually able to get more heaters to people, we've actually already seen a reduction in drug use and an uptick in smiles.” 

Meadows said she has watched people become more alert upon receiving heaters. “Every week during the wintertime, they're already borderline hypothermic,” she said. “Then we come back to refill their heaters, they're totally different. They're active and present. And, they're just like, ‘wow, these heaters are amazing.’”

But, at the end of the day, all people deserve actual heated housing, mutual aid groups said. The project supplements tenant organizing, eviction defense and take-overs of empty buildings, all of which are intended to ensure everyone has roofs over their heads. 

“When you're poor you don't have a voice. When you're unhoused you are not treated as a human. Our desire would be that HeaterBloc would no longer be a need,” wrote HeaterBloc. “Society would accept and care for all of its members, acknowledging that housing is a human right rather than just a luxury.”