"I've always believed society is defined by how we deal with our weakest links," he said. "The best of America is when we take care of the less fortunate."
The idea of a mobile, single-person shelter popped to mind.
Samuelson sponsored a contest at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena to design his "widget."
Eric Lindeman and Jason Zasa took the honors, with a mobile shopping cart-like apparatus. The cart features bins to hold cans, bottles and other recyclables collected by day. It folds out to create a sleeping platform, topped by a canvas cover with zippers and windows.
Samuelson labeled it an EDAR, and established the EDAR Foundation, whose slogan is: "Thinking outside the box."
With a donation from former EBay President Jeff Skoll, he took the design to Precision Wire Products, a manufacturer of shopping carts in Commerce. Precision produced a succession of prototypes, at least nine, to address critiques of the device: too big, too small, too flimsy, not readily collapsible. The units have been thrown down flights of stairs (they're sturdy) and left in the rain (they don't leak).
Three months ago, Samuelson decided to distribute 60 EDARs for testing. With the help of churches, missions and shelters, he and his assistants identified chronically homeless people who could benefit from an EDAR in the short term and might be willing to develop a lasting relationship with service providers.
After Dehanka Straughter was laid off from her job as a cook at a Compton preschool, she and her two sons, ages 2 and 6, were evicted from their $975-a-month apartment.
They sold their furniture, stored some possessions in Straughter's unregistered car and stayed with family and friends for a few weeks. When Straughter saw people sleeping on the streets, she thought "that's where we'd be next." Then a friend told her that women and children could find temporary quarters at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles.
Now the petite Straughter, 27, sleeps in an EDAR with her boys on the fourth floor of the mission. They like it better than she does. "The kids adjust to anything," she said. "They think they're camping."
Still, she says, "I'm happy to have a place to bathe and eat and sleep."
With the economy sinking, mission Chief Executive Andy Bales is making room for more mothers with children and hopes to provide EDARs -- indoors -- for many of them. The EDAR Foundation provided 17 units; the mission has asked to buy 100 more, some for use in its winter shelter.
Bales hopes that with mass production, the price will drop to $400 from just under $500.
"They make a nice cot and provide a lot of privacy," he said. "I had a 6-foot-7 friend lie down in one. He was comfortable."
Raynor learned about EDAR from homeless acquaintances. A high school dropout and former construction worker, Raynor had spent three years in jail for auto theft and forgery. With police after him in Texas and his home state of Missouri, he went to Arizona. He left there in search of more temperate weather and found it next to Pacific Coast Highway.
As traffic rushed by one recent starry Friday night, Raynor reminisced about his brushes with the law. Beer can in hand, he spoke of jumping a freight train to Texas to search for a friend's missing 13-year-old daughter. Wielding a sawed-off shotgun, he banged down a door and tied up two men who he thought knew her whereabouts. "How was I to know they were cops working on a sting operation?" he said.
Recently, a woman he described as his fiancee was struck and killed by a driver on PCH. Not long after, a male friend suffered the same fate, he said. The woman he'd married in Arizona disappeared from his life. He shares his PCH-adjacent turf with a woman named Yolanda, whose speech has been slurred by alcohol and a head injury.
Raynor said his EDAR is "very comfortable," cooled by sea breezes by day and made cozy by his body heat at night.
"It's about time someone took an initiative for people less fortunate than themselves," he said.
In October, the EDAR won $10,000 in an innovation contest sponsored by Los Angeles Social Venture Partners, the Social Enterprise Institute and the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation. The EDAR Foundation ( www.edar.org) is seeking donations to produce more of the mobile shelters.
Students at Rand Corp., the Santa Monica think tank, are interviewing EDAR users and representatives of shelters and missions to assess how the units might fit into a system of comprehensive care for the homeless.
"The goal is to find out who will benefit most from this unit and therefore what the distribution plan should look like," said Barbara Raymond, a consultant working on the study. Raymond sees possibilities for EDARs in refugee camps and for victims of natural disasters.
Meanwhile, lawyers are sorting out legal issues. Will municipal codes allow users to park their units anywhere? What about constitutional questions and not-in-my-backyard complaints?
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, said police fear the units could constitute dwellings where inhabitants would have a reasonable expectation of privacy. In that scenario, police would need warrants to search EDARs, which could become havens for drug use or prostitution. Chemerinsky maintains that cities could allow the units in designated public places as long as users consented to be searched, much like travelers entering an airport.
Samuelson anticipates those and other objections to his invention. Does the EDAR enable homelessness by making it more bearable? No, he insists.
"Why is the EDAR not regressive?" he said. "Because it is not nearly as good as a shelter bed. There's no pretense it's as good as permanent or temporary brick-and-mortar housing." But it is, he says, "infinitely better than a damp cardboard box."
Groves is a Times staff writer.