Manu Chilaud: We said, How can someone freeze to death in 21st century Europe?

Emmanuel Chilaud with his girlfriend Pavla Klečková

Nobody is as impacted by the freezing weather we have had recently in Czechia as the homeless. However, some are being helped by the Iglou, which offers an alternative to night shelters. The portable emergency shelter was introduced to this country by Frenchman Manu Chilaud and his partner Pavla Klečková – and the two are now bringing it to states as far afield as Canada. Chilaud spoke to me from Ostrava, where he has lived for some years and, alongside non-profit work with Iglou, is senior director of manufacturing for a major international firm.

Photo: Monika Pustovková,  Czech Radio

“The Iglou looks like a small tunnel made of polyethylene foam, which is a professional insulation material, and which the person sleeping inside can close at both ends, with two doors that are made from the same material.

“This makes it so the person inside is warming the inside by their own body warmth and body temperature.

“This means you don’t need anything else than having the user inside to get 15 to 20 degrees Celsius additional inside, compared to outside.

“You can imagine, it’s minus 10 outside these days and a person sleeping inside would have some plus temperature.

“They probably wouldn’t have 20 to 22 degrees like you would have in your home, but they can get plus 5, plus 10, which is a luxury in these days.”

And that’s enough to save their lives, I guess?

“For those who are already without any resources, ending up with amputation of legs, for example, is something extremely difficult.”

“To save their lives, and also to prevent frostbite.

“That is extremely important because that also leads to amputations.

“And for those people who are already without any resources, or living in difficult conditions, ending up with amputation of legs, for example, or feet, or fingers, is something extremely difficult.”

How do people carry the Iglou? It can be wrapped up – is that the case?

“Municipalities and charities have their own street workers who know exactly where those people are living.”

“No, it can’t. I mean, it can be put flat, but still you’ve got a kind of package of two metres by one metre by 20 centimetres.

“It’s eight to 11 kilos, depending on the size, so it’s not something that a homeless person would carry with them at all.

“We sell Iglous exclusively to municipalities and charities.

“And those municipalities and charities have their own street workers who know exactly where those people are living, who they are and do they really need that?

“Because it would not be good, for example, to give an Iglou to somebody who is already sleeping at a night shelter, because that’s a far better service than an Iglou can be.

“The street workers are then carrying the Iglou to the place; it’s easy to carry on your shoulder, but you can’t do that all the day.

“But you can bring it one kilometer deep in the forest or to some secluded area, under bridges and so on; it’s quite easy.”

Photo: Iglou

How did you first come across the idea of the Iglou?

“Pavla and myself were saying to each other that for a year or two already, OK, one day we want to stop our crazy life as managers and to – we should stop for three months, go somewhere far and maybe help kids.

“But it was always like, maybe, in the future, far – that was in our minds.

“Then one day we opened the newspaper and the first article we saw was that a homeless person had frozen to death during the night.

“And when we looked at a bit at where it was, it was, like, one kilometre from our factory.

“We were shocked and said, How can this happen in the 21st century, in our countries, in Europe?

Photo: Iglou

“So we started to dig a bit more into what is the homeless, who are those people in the sense of how did they come to homelessness, why are they not just finding a job in a country which today has almost no employment?

“We asked why can’t they come back to society, what are their conditions in winter, what are their conditions in summer?

“We contacted the local Salvation Army and the director just told us, OK, I can explain a lot to you, but the best thing is if you jump in that truck tomorrow evening and you distribute soup with us.

“For one full winter we were distributing soup with street workers from the Salvation Army, locally.

“Then one day we came across a video from a French guy who had invented this Iglou and for us it was like, Oh, this is what we need to do.

“We started in our apartment, physically making the Iglous ourselves for the first winter.”

“Immediately we picked up the phone and spoke to Geoffroy [de Reynal], the young engineer who invented it.

“We said we wanted to buy a license and to make Iglous in Czechia.

“He said, No way, no license, you do Iglous in Czechia for free, and I’ll send you everything I have, because it’s to help people.

“We started in our apartment, physically making the Iglous ourselves for the first winter.

“We just wanted to make 20 that we would give to charities, so that they try it.

“But some friend of ours took us to Czech Television and it was immediately, like, more charities, more cities calling and ordering.

“We didn’t even have a price, we didn’t know how much it costs – we were just doing it from our money, so we didn’t really calculate it.

Photo: Iglou

“And we ended up by doing 70 for that first winter.

“The second year we started to say, OK, let’s use the second year to something like industrialise the product, finding a partner.

“So we found a company which is now producing it industrially.

“Then having more time for the Iglou when we weren’t producing them we started to discuss how to do it with Geoffroy.

“He said he needed to escape from it, because he had given three years of his life without any revenue, just doing the Iglou.

“So he gave us the project completely, so now we are the only two.

“But at the same time we expanded to different counties in, I don’t know, 10 or 11 countries in Europe, plus in Canada.”

Of course many homeless people, if they can, want to sleep indoors. Who specifically is the Iglou for?

“The Iglou is specifically for those guys who, as you said, won’t sleep inside during the winter.

“You’ve got probably 10 to 20 percent who are really staying outside, whatever the weather may be.

“There are cities where they don’t have shelters where you can bring dogs. And you won’t leave that animal outside, because that’s their best friend, usually.”

“Who are those people? There are many reasons, and it depends on what the cities and shelters are able to bring.

“But there are cities where they don’t have shelters where you can bring dogs, for example.

“So if you have animals, you can’t go in the shelters. And you won’t leave that animal outside, because that’s their best friend, usually.

“You’ve also got couples. It’s very difficult for couples to be separated and usually there are no shelters for couples.

“You’ve got schizophrenic people, ones who cannot sleep inside four walls, and we have some even in our city.

“You’ve also got a lot of people who have simply built something outside – you know, four pallets and a kind of roof with a tarpaulin on it – and this is their only, I would say, property.

Photo: Iglou

“It’s not even a property, obviously, but this is all that they have.

“And they know that if they leave that place for three or five nights, because they are really freezing nights, they would not get that place back.

“Somebody else would take it, so they won’t leave that place.

“And that’s exactly for whom the Iglou is done. You can be with a dog, you can be in couples – now we’ve got one model for couples.

“We can bring the Iglou to the place where you are staying already, where you’ve got your things, where you’ve built a kind of life.

“And the Iglou is an additional service. It’s not something which will replace a charity. Completely the opposite – it’s adding a new service.

“For those street workers who know that there are some people who will never go inside, for all those reasons that I said and some additional ones.

“But that’s a very important service that they can bring.

“And with the Iglou they can also create, or recreate sometimes, contact with some people who don’t want any more to speak with charities that only have day and night shelters, which they would not use.”

What do you feel you have learned about homeless people from your involvement in this project?

“First I will answer ‘everything’, because we didn’t know a lot before.

“But if I can say it like that, we’ve learned that everybody is different, everybody has different reasons.

Photo: Iglou

“You cannot say all homeless people are alcoholics, or bad people, or homeless people don’t want to find a job – there is a human story behind each and every person.

“Each and every one of them has their reason to be there, but also each and every one of them has different needs.

“And it’s very important to have this humanity and this empathy and to take the time to discuss with each and every person.

“That’s why we are sending the Iglou only to professionals, I would say.

“Because those guys really understand what the needs are – what this Iglou can bring to the person.

“And the Iglou is bringing warmth, physical warmth. But it needs to bring also human warmth behind that.

“It cannot be only about degrees – it also has to be with the heart.”

This is such an ingenious idea, it seems to me, and I guess they are relatively cheap to produce. But still you’re only in 10 or 11 countries and I expect you’re producing them in the hundreds or maybe low thousands. Why is this not used more?

“In terms of figures, yes, we are about hundreds every year, it’s not even thousands.

“Why is not used more? First, it’s not very well-known – and we are working on how to get it more known.

“Some charities see it as competition.”

“Usually when we start to have a bit of media coverage in one country then we’ve got a lot of orders picking up.

“It is also about education of the charities.

“Some charities see it as competition. They say, OK, if there will be Iglous then the people won’t be in the night shelters.

“And let’s not forget that a lot of charities get grants from cities, from the state, from the region – on the number of people that they can get inside.

“This is also something that needs to change, slowly but surely, on the political side.

“That’s what we have reached in our city.

“The Iglou in our city is integrated into the winter service of the charities, meaning that the charities also get some money from the city, from the region, to provide that new service.

“So it needs to be understood as a new service and as an additional thing, not as competition.”