Changing the Unhoused Narrative, One Story at a Time L.A.-based educator and podcast host is chosen as Activist-in-Residence by the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy
By Stan Paul
Theo Henderson, the founder of the “We the Unhoused” podcast and himself a person who has experienced homelessness for several years in Los Angeles, has been raising awareness of the unhoused for the last two years on his podcast. For the next few months, he’ll lend his experiences to UCLA as Activist-in-Residence at the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy.
Ananya Roy, director of the institute, said that through his work, Henderson has already had a significant impact on the public’s understanding of homelessness in Los Angeles.
“Rooted in his own experience of becoming unhoused, his podcast is a decisive intervention in how we understand housing insecurity and housing solutions,” said Roy, also a professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography. “Mr. Henderson constantly draws our attention to the structural causes of poverty, including racism, and reminds us of the social and policy shifts needed to address such issues.”
Now in its fifth year, the program based at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs brings artists, activists and public intellectuals to campus in an effort to further academic understanding of social justice issues such as housing. “[Henderson] joins an illustrious set of previous Activists-in-Residence and was selected for this appointment from among an exceptionally strong pool of applicants,” Roy said.
Henderson said his podcast was small but effective in its early stages — and, literally, a grassroots effort.
“I created ‘We the Unhoused’ living out in the park, and I wanted to uplift the stories of unhoused people in a larger setting,” said Henderson, who has been recording his podcast interviews and commentary on his cellphone. “Many of the institutions of higher learning are not really plugged into that kind of conversation from the lived experience experts.”
Originally from Chicago, Henderson, 48, is college-educated and had a job as a schoolteacher in Los Angeles at the time of the Great Recession. A medical crisis and loss of his job were followed by eviction and search for stable shelter. He ended up unhoused and living in a park.
Henderson, who has spoken to classes and in other academic settings, including several times at UCLA, says one of the central “civil rights issues of our time is houselessness.”
A major problem with the narrative around housing issues is that it has been — and remains — guided by people who are housed, Henderson said.
“It is erasing unhoused people from view. That experience motivated me to tell my story on my own terms and give voice to the voiceless,” he said.
“I emphasize different things that are really important or because of what I’ve seen with mainstream news,” Henderson said. An example would be a crime story that involves an unhoused person, whether a victim or otherwise, in which “housing status became a little large in the headlines.”
He wanted to push back. So, Henderson launched his podcast, just prior to the pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated the problem and made it more difficult for the unhoused, he said.
“I made it a point to make different podcasts about experiences of the unhoused during COVID because people forget that, when shelter-in-place happened, the world literally stopped,” he said. “It’s a real situation. I think the world needed to know. But COVID happened … you forget about the unhoused; they have to survive as well.”
At UCLA, Henderson said he hopes to utilize the academic setting and his residency to open the door to more active, mobile research methods and see how theories play out in real-world scenarios.
Henderson is also looking to impart knowledge that can be applied to settings that he might not otherwise be able to access, including business, politics and higher learning. He also plans to engage with students through workshops and class discussions, as well as participating in community events and visiting sites both on and off the campus.
In his application for the residency, Henderson wrote, “Students have the power to make change, but they need to be armed with the necessary knowledge to do so. In order to make an impact, future leaders need to build connections with people dealing with the realities of houselessness.”
“Mr. Henderson is a lifelong educator. He has not allowed the condition of becoming unhoused to end his teaching. Instead, he has created new pedagogies that reflect the condition of being unhoused,” Roy said. “I anticipate that he will be a terrific educator for UCLA Luskin faculty and students.”
It’s an honor to be chosen as the next Activist-in-Residence and to return to the UCLA campus, Henderson said. “I’ve been there so much. I used to joke, ‘I might as well have a spot here.’ ”