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♫ Who lives in a cardboard box under the sea? ♫

Am I living in a box?
Am I living in a cardboard box?
Living in a Box, Living in a Box

Homes can be made from all kinds of materials, from straw, to wood, to brick. But impoverished people can't afford anything fancy like that and they have to make do with improvised shelters made from discarded materials. While longstanding homeless encampments and shantytowns may have simple huts made from discarded building materials and tarps, the simplest improvised shelter is a large, sturdy cardboard box. A discarded appliance box provides shelter from rain, snow, and wind and a little insulation against the cold. The person is often depicted setting up the box in an alley in The City Narrows or under a highway bridge.

A character who has to improvise a shelter from a cardboard box is still effectively homeless, but technically speaking, it is a "home". Indeed, in some jurisdictions, courts have ruled that police must get a warrant before searching it.

While a cardboard box may provide some shelter, homelessness advocates point out that people sleeping in them can get exposed to cold and damp, which can harm their health (or even be fatal in cold climates). Also, sleeping in a cardboard box doesn't provide access to cooking and cleaning facilities, and cardboard box dwellers are vulnerable to the risk of fire from a nearby Trashcan Bonfire or cooking fire, and with no locking door, they are at risk of getting beaten up.

If this trope gets Played for Laughs, its owner will treat it with the same dignity and respect commanded by an actual home (maybe even a Big Fancy House), and expect any visitors to do the same. While sleeping in a cardboard box is typically used as shorthand to indicate a long-term homeless person, more rarely a well-off person might sleep in a box due to a psychological condition (anxiety) or due to being on the run from a threatening person.

May be a Mundane Luxury. Compare Horrible Housing, which is at least in a building, but is still used to mark its inhabitants as poor. Sleeping in a tent or tarp lean-to is perhaps more common among Real Life homeless people than a cardboard box, but the more desperate cardboard box is more commonly portrayed by writers of fiction. Compare Cardboard Box of Unemployment.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Blattodea: Chiyuri used to sleep inside a cardboard box next to a bridge, and while taking shelter with Setsuna in a warehouse during the Zombie Apocalypse the girls also sleep in boxes. This relates to her Creepy Cockroach motif, as she's fond of enclosed spaces.
  • Hekikai No Aion: Seine lives in cardboard since she's Really 700 Years Old and has no family. Even after Tatsuya took her home, she still insists on sleeping inside her beloved cardboard.

    Comic Books 
  • The Maxx: The Maxx used to live in a cardboard box until Julie took him in.
  • Spawn: Spawn was homeless and lived with other homeless bums, some of whom were depicted as living in cardboard boxes.

    Films — Animated 
  • Bolt: Mittens tries to entice Bolt into staying in Las Vegas with her by showing him the homes she made for them out of cardboard boxes and some cushions. Unfortunately for her, he's still going home to his person, Penny.
  • The Powerpuff Girls Movie: It's where the girls discover Jojo, Professor Utonium's lab monkey (who would turn into the villain Mojo Jojo), when they first run into him.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Darkman: Westlake takes shelter in a cardboard box after escaping from the hospital. When the box blows away during a storm, he is driven to seek out the remains of his old laboratory.
  • Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco: The lost pets spend their first night in San Francisco sleeping in a cardboard box that Shadow finds.
  • Hummingbird: At the start, Joey and Isabel are sharing a cardboard box in an alley in London.
  • LA Zombie: A homeless man is found dead from an overdose in a refrigerator box. It is way Bigger on the Inside.
  • Life Stinks: Bolt gets his street name, Pepto, for the label on the box that he first sleeps in.

  • Doc Sidhe: One of Blackletter's first victims lives in a refrigerator box. A paragraph or so is devoted to how comfortable it is and he considers himself lucky to have secured it.
  • Garfield's Judgement Day: When Arlene is revealed as a stray, her "home" is shown to just be a box in an alleyway.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The Big Bang Theory: "The Financial Permeability": Referenced. Penny is in dire financial straits, so Sheldon offers to lend her some money. She at first refuses, saying she doesn't want things to be "weird" between them. Sheldon replies, "Won't it also be weird if I have to say hello to you every morning on my way to work, and you're living in a refrigerator box and washing your hair with rain water?"
  • Birds of a Feather:
    • "Sisters Are Doing It": Sharon fears that she'll be put into "cardboard city" when she thinks that Tracey has a new boyfriend.
    • "Dead Loss": Dorien once campaigned for those homeless who lived in cardboard boxes. Apparently, her solution was to get bigger boxes for them.
      Dorien: So? Every little bit helps.
      Tracey: Yeah, I suppose livin' in a bigger box you could always invite people 'round.
    • "Nearest and Dearest": Dorien mocks Sharon by asking if she can't wait to move into an abandoned packing crate after Chris comes home.
    • "Relative Strangers": When Tracey says she's been dreaming of having Darryl home, Sharon remarks she must have been living in a cardboard box in that particular dream.
  • Law & Order: Multiple episodes deal with the homeless, some of whom live in the "traditional" cardboard box.
  • In Living Color!: A recurring sketch, "This Old Box" (a parody of the DIY series This Old House), featured Damon Wayans as a homeless man showing viewers how to renovate one's cardboard box.
  • Profit has a twist on this. The title character's domineering and abusive father would force him to sleep in a cardboard box in the basement as a punishment. As an adult, in spite of being a powerful and wealthy yuppie, Profit will frequently go down to his basement and sleep in a cardboard box.
  • Scrubs: One episode sees JD on a date trying to impress a girl. First he ran over an opossum and took it to the vet. As they pulled out of their parking spot at the animal hospital, he ran over a homeless man in a cardboard box. It got worse from there.
  • Spitting Image: referenced in the 80s House Price Slum song. A parody of The Madness song "Our House", it's about a family who followed Margaret Thatcher's advice and got a "great big loan" to buy a house only for the market to collapse when they attempted to sell it (Our house, didn't work out like we planned/Our house, prices dropped by fifty grand), leaving them with no way to pay the mortgage and subsequently getting their home repossessed by the bank (Our house, threw us out and changed the locks/Our house, it is now a cardboard box).

  • The Austin Lounge Lizards: Parodied in the song "Love In a Refrigerator Box".
  • Used metaphorically in "Living In A Box" by the British group... erm, Living In A Box to describe the singer's state of mind.
  • The first line of "The Bidding" by Tally Hall is "I've been sleeping in a cardboard box..."
  • "Weird Al" Yankovic:
    • As part of the Hilariously Abusive Childhood Al describes in "When I Was Your Age", he claims that "There were seventy-three of us living in a cardboard box" when he was a kid. And he had apparently needed to sell his internal organs just to pay the rent on it!
    • "Albuquerque" opens with Al flashing back to "way back when I was just a little bitty boy living in a box under the stairs in the corner of the basement of the house half a block down the street from Jerry's Bait Shop (you know the place)."

    Tabletop Games 
  • For Sale has a set of 30 homes to be flipped, each showing artwork for the home in question. The lowest-value house is the cardboard box in an alley. The next step up is either a sewer, doghouse, or outhouse depending on the published edition.
  • Unknown Armies: One artifact of particular power is the Cardboard Palace, a pocket dimension based out of a series of boxes. It expands and contracts as boxes are linked and destroyed.
  • Werewolf: The Apocalypse: The Bone Gnawers have a rite that turns a cardboard box (or other improvised shelter)into a warm, weatherproof shelter. It can even function as a place of healing on a good enough roll.

    Video Games 
  • Alan Wake II: Shelters made from cardboard are frequently found in the New York of the Dark Place. Given that the place is shaping itself to be the archetypal noir setting, they appear even without any actual people there besides Alan, let alone homeless people, simply because they're expected.
  • Card City Nights: Apparently, Loafer has a cardboard fort in the Dark Alley, according to The Kid:
    Loafer comes here to sleep in a little cardboard fort she built. It's got a phone, and TV and everything.
  • Crush Crush: Cat Girl Quill lives in a cardboard box until the player character crushes it underfoot.
  • Dominique Pamplemousse: Referenced by Dominique, who remarks that for all its faults their office is a step up from living in a cardboard box.
  • Five Nights at Freddy's: Security Breach: The worst ending has Gregory flee the PizzaPlex and fall asleep in a cardboard box in an alley, using a newspaper reporting on missing children as a blanket. Then Vanny shows up, implying he'll be the next missing kid.
  • LittleBigPlanet: Your spaceship hub is made of cardboard.
  • Recettear: If you fail to meet a payment deadline, you will be shown a scene where Recette gets kicked out of her home, and the next screen shows a cardboard box labeled "Recette's House". Then she wakes up and realizes it was All Just a Dream, and you can try again.

    Web Animation 

    Web Comics 
  • Nana's Everyday Life: Nana lives in a cardboard box.
  • Rooster Teeth Comics: One strip has two of the guys wondering why they had never seen the inside of Jason's home. The last panel shows his house is really a flat front and he lives in a cardboard box in the yard.

    Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation: SCP-647 is a living cardboard box that invokes this trope to lure vagrants inside, after which it closes itself and digests them. If it's gone long enough without eating, it will add blankets, food, and liquor to the disguise to make itself even more attractive to them.
  • Cleolinda Jones: In the Mary Sue meme fill, when creating a Sue that parodies as many Harry Potter Mary Sues as possible. "Cleo Sue", as she's known, is introduced as a poor orphan who is living in a cardboard box until "some weird guy with a long beard" stops by to tell her she's a witch.

    Web Video 

    Western Animation 
  • Captain Planet and the Planeteers: "No Place Like Home": While trying to contact Gaia, Ma-Ti gets a vision of a place made of "paper houses". Initially, the Planeteers and Captain Planet think it might have something to do with the local Chinatown, due to Gi telling them of rice paper walls in some Asian countries. Eventually, however, Wheeler spots several homeless people putting new layers of paper and cardboard over their makeshift houses damaged by the rain. This is what sets the team on the right track to find Gaia.
  • DuckTales (1987): "Down and Out in Duckburg": When Uncle Scrooge becomes broke, he imagines a parody of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous which focused on him living on the street and his cardboard house, which his butler tried to maintain spick-span (and an Overly Long Gag of him continuously answering to the reporter, in a somewhat-exasperated tone, that there was nothing else but cardboard involved in the house's construction).
  • Frisky Dingo: Exaggerated and parodied — Xander Crews runs a *homeless outreach centre* out of a couple of cardboard boxes in one episode...until he shoots his employee of the month with a flare gun and almost kills her. ("How's THAT for snacktime?!")
  • Futurama: "I, Roommate": After being kicked out from the Planet Express building, Fry asks if fridges still come in cardboard boxes (after being thrown out of the Planet Express office, where he'd been living since being unfrozen). Bender says yes, "but the rents are outrageous."
  • Maggie and the Ferocious Beast: Hamilton lives inside a cardboard box, though it's apparently big enough on the inside to serve as his entire house. He has a bed in there, at least.
  • Mission Hill: In "Happy Birthday, Kevin (or Happy Birthday, Douchebag)", Kevin accidentally bumps into a cardboard box on the sidewalk and a homeless man jumps out of it.
    Homeless Man: Hey! You smashed my porch! That is a fine, expensive porch! Pay me! Hey, pay me, yuppie man! Hey hey, I'm talkin' to you!
  • ReBoot: "Identity Crisis, Part 2": In the Bad Future Dot sees, future Phong lives in a cardboard box in an alley.
  • The Simpsons: ''Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?": After his automobile company folded, Herb's been living as a Hobo in a cardboard box.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants: "Can You Spare a Dime?": Squidward is homeless (after quitting his job and being unable to find another one) and living in a cardboard box. That is, until the repo man comes to repossess it.
  • Tiny Toon Adventures:
    • One episode is a parody of Citizen Kane, which has a scene where Montana Max is shown to live in a cardboard box until his family wins the lottery.
    • Furrball lives inside a cardboard box whenever he's not an unfortunate pet of Elmyra Duff.

    Real Life 
  • Philosopher Diogenes of Sinope (one of the founders of Cynicism) was said to live in the Ancient Greece equivalent, that is, a pithos (large ceramic jar), in the streets of Athens.