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Everyone Has an Idea for Solving Homelessness. What if we listened to the unhoused?

Updated: Apr 11

Theo Henderson (left), who is currently Activist-in-Residence at the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, and Ananya Roy (right), founding director of the Institute and a professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography.

(Brittany Bravo/For The Times)

By Theo Henderson, Ananya Roy

“It’s a war on the poor,” Theo Henderson often likes to note. And indeed, it is, in the liberal city of Los Angeles, where homelessness is the leading public issue of concern. While politicians expand the criminalization of homelessness and promise to “end encampments,” thousands of Angelenos are consigned to living and dying on the streets, and thousands more are on the edge of eviction. Rarely, though, do unhoused voices and experiences shape the city’s public discourse and policies about homelessness. Dehumanized and banished, the unhoused have come to be seen as a problem to be eradicated.

This conversation — held at the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, where Ananya Roy is founding director, and Theo is currently Activist-in-Residence — foregrounds the endeavors and collaborations that seek to challenge such erasure. It builds on Theo’s work as founder of “We the Unhoused,” a podcast that has produced a radical shift in how Angelenos think about homelessness; and the work of the institute, including programs that are meant to turn the university inside out, by bringing movement-based scholars and unhoused public intellectuals to the classroom. As Theo highlights in this interview, there is a growing web of solidarity afoot in L.A., one that refuses the divides that otherwise structure life in this unequal city. — Ananya Roy and Theo Henderson

Ananya Roy: I’m so delighted to be able to do this with you. Why don’t we start with how “We the Unhoused” got started?

Theo Henderson: It begins, literally, with me being displaced to a park. Like many other unhoused people, I am college-educated. I was employed as an instructor. I got ill, and I did not have the safety net — or financial or family support — to see me through recovery from severe illness. As you know, the rents here, the medical care here, are ridiculously expensive. I had to make some decisions that eventually got me into the park. Being an unhoused person, you don’t just set a tent out and say, “This will be my home.” It is a slow descent. My descent started off being evicted from my apartment. [I had] friends do couch commitments until neighbors complained to the landlord. Then I jumped to hotels, then squatting in buildings, then sleeping in a car.

I had close friends — some of them are NIMBYs [Not in My Back Yard] — that [saw] my situation as a personal failing. When I would try to educate them, they tried to give me solutions that I [had] already explored. It got increasingly exhausting. Then I was targeted by the NIMBYs in the community that didn’t like my presence and my connections in the community. So, I basically started to find a way to fight back. I wanted to create a voice that was a bit different from a housed perspective. I work very hard to get the unhoused perspective over the housed perspective.

Theo Henderson is the host of “We the Unhoused.” “I work very hard to get the unhoused perspective over the housed perspective,” he says.

(Brittany Bravo/For The Times)

AR: When you were teaching full-time, what were you teaching? Tell us a little bit about what it meant for you to be in the classroom.

TH: My focus was English, creative writing; but I also was multisubject because if a teacher called in sick or something, I was what they would call the “rover” teacher. I was a substitute teacher for science, math, geography, whatever. But my focus was English literature as well as creative writing.

AR: What was your college major?

TH: English — and it was education. I had to train to be a teacher [at Aquinas College in Michigan].

AR: This is making me smile, because my mom — she’s retired now — she was an English teacher. What made you want to become a teacher?

TH: Weirdly enough, I always knew I was going to be a teacher because of the teachers I had. I always had a knack for helping my peers around me. I helped my sister who is a math teacher in science, even though I hated math. I always, deep down, knew I wanted to try to get away from it, because the pay sucked. But I always knew I was going to be a teacher.

AR: Tell us a little bit about growing up. What, for you, was a sense of home? Because this question of what home is, of what it means to have a home, even if one is unhoused — all of that matters so much to you. What are your memories of home and what felt like home to you?

TH: My family is from the South, and [we] were part of the Great Migration. What people miss about the Great Migration is the terrorism that went on with Black Southern sharecroppers and very low-income families. I come from that environment and that perspective. In the Midwest — I moved to L.A. 15 years ago — there was the latchkey movement I grew up in. Your parents worked themselves almost to the bone. And you basically raised yourself on after-school specials and instruction. The teachers that I grew up with went to the same church my parents did, so I could not be a troublemaker, though I did have my moments.

AR: Let’s return a little bit to that park. Once you have done the hotels, you’ve done the couch-surfing and you’re out of options, you are in the park. You have talked before about the various kinds of violence you faced. Let’s break that down a little bit.

TH: There is no school that can educate you on the realities of unhoused people. There’s a mindset with housed people who believethey’ve worked hard to pay their taxes and deserve the amenities that the city offers. Anyone that does not fit in is looked at through a sinister lens — you must be either drug-addicted or mentally ill or you’re preying on the elderly or on the children. It was not uncommon for NIMBYs to walk up and take pictures, and then craft their own narrative. I remember one gentleman — and I never met the man — he started turning on the phone and yelling and screaming at me. Mind you, there were multiple people around that were housed and exercising and dancing to music and things like that. But he zeroed in on me, and then he tried to get me to create an incident that he could call the police to have me arrested. That became an organized effort by LAPD, some of the NIMBY people with kids, as well as Parks and Recreation.

Homelessness is the leading cause of concern in the liberal city of Los Angeles. “It’s a war on the poor,” Theo Henderson says.

(Brittany Bravo/For The Times)

Now, I also want to say that there were community members that came to my defense. There was a wonderful, elderly population there that fed me constantly, looked after me and allowed me to do errands for them or tutor their child. That was a very unique situation that I must point out, because if you look at it, here’s an unhoused guy being able to watch their children. That was almost unheard of. It really showed the respect and trust that they had.

AR: You use the term “organized effort” — I think that’s an important point. It wasn’t just individual NIMBYs; it was that there was an organized effort with Parks and Rec, with police. A targeted, focused campaign.

TH: All it takes is a NIMBY parent. It doesn’t always have to be an enemy parent, let me be clear; it has to be someone that doesn’t like unhoused people, and they pretend that they care about unhoused people. I want to compare it to some whites who believe Blacks shouldn’t be in a certain place. You know, it’s “Think of the poor defenseless children.” Now, there are unhoused people that traipse this whole community. And they are not out harming children. But the idea is that they can’t be near parks, they can’t be near schools. [People who believe this] think that all unhoused people are going to snatch poor children, or they don’t want their kids to see poverty. The reality of it is, is that in that park were friends of mine that were unhoused, and their children were there too.

AR: In the wake of Echo Park Lake displacement we heard this discourse repeatedly, that working-class families were unable to use the park, their children don’t have access to green space in crowded neighborhoods, as if the presence of the unhoused community there somehow impeded anyone from using the park. How do you counter that kind of discourse?

TH: The limited space is not due to unhoused encroachment. It’s due to your city leaders cutting off spaces and allowing developers to overtake places. There are not enough community rec centers that are inclusive of everybody, and most are only for a certain financial group of people. So you get choice services but an unhoused family that needs to utilize those services cannot because, you know, [they’re] not part of the in-crowd.

There is no school that can educate you on the realities of unhoused people.

— Theo Henderson

AR: Let’s talk a little bit about [Section 41.18 of the Los Angeles Municipal Code] but also more broadly, the sweeps. Because you’ve said many times that to be unhoused in L.A. is as if you have no place to be. This is also related to the fact that you don’t have access to the basic amenities that human beings need, like bathrooms. There are thousands and thousands of unhoused people, and yet they don’t have a place to be.

TH: The most skilled travel agent doesn’t stand a chance with unhoused people. Unhoused people have to plot their day-to-day existence to the minutiae. They have to make sure where their belongings are. They have to navigate public transportation, if they don’t have an automobile. They have to time themselves to be at places. To be able to survive in this kind of environment requires a presence of mind. You’re always weighing the risk.