‘We The Unhoused’ podcaster Theo Henderson takes on activist-in-residence position
Theo Henderson hosts “We The Unhoused,” a podcast documenting stories of the unhoused people of Los Angeles and beyond. As an advocate for people who are unhoused, Henderson has been selected to be the newest activist-in-residence at the Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy. (Daily Bruin file photo)
By Constanza Montemayor
Jan. 26, 2022 4:47 p.m.
Editor’s note: This article uses the descriptor “unhoused” to describe people experiencing homelessness to respect Theo Henderson’s preferred use of the term.
Theo Henderson will become the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy’s 2022 activist-in-residence, a position first hosted in 2017 to improve academic understanding of social justice.
Ananya Roy, director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at UCLA, said in an emailed statement that the residency gives activists time to reflect and recharge. The program, a partnership with the Asian American Studies Center, is in its fifth year and is housed in the Luskin School of Public Affairs. The residency was one of the first programs created at the institute and is intended to provide movement leaders with space, time and resources, added Roy, who is also a professor of urban planning, social welfare and geography.
“So often these elements are not afforded to those who are working on the front lines of racial, social, housing, climate justice,” Roy said in the statement.
Originally from Chicago, Henderson received an undergraduate degree in education from a local college before moving to Los Angeles, where he worked as a school teacher, according to New York Magazine. According to NY Magazine, he lost his job after the Great Recession hit and struggled with medical debt, and in 2013, he was evicted from his apartment and eventually came to reside in Chinatown and later Hollywood.
Henderson has spent the last two years raising awareness for people who are unhoused through his podcast “We The Unhoused” and has spent over eight years without a home in LA. He said he did not expect the podcast to be well received at first, citing resistance to lived experience as a person without a home.
Since its first episode in 2019, “We The Unhoused” has come to span more than 40 episodes, chronicling issues of unhoused life, including gentrification, health and harm reduction. Henderson records the podcast on his cellphone, he added. He estimates that his podcast has around 1,000 listeners.
The podcast has changed as relevant issues shift, Henderson said. He focuses on current issues, such as LA Municipal Code section 41.18, which prohibits people from sitting, lying or sleeping in many public spaces; Special Enforcement and Clean Up zones, which ban camps of people who are unhoused during the daytime; upcoming elections; and the needs of people who are unhoused living in single-room-occupancy housing – while still making an effort to display stories of people who are unhoused, he added.
Sam Lutzker, a doctoral student of sociology who focuses on the study of homelessness in California, said he had listened to “We The Unhoused” and found it an effective tool to educate the public about the unhoused community. The podcast can teach others about unhoused issues in a way that is less edited than information presented by service-sector employees, he added.
“You hear something that’s much more raw, much more personal, much more grounded in personal experience, and you also get like an hour to dive into it,” Lutzker said.
The podcast, as a firsthand account from the unhoused community, helps dismantle biased narratives found in the media, Lutzker added.
“As we think more and more about the information flows and where we get the information flow from, what media we get that from, I think taking into consideration the sort of alternative medias that exist, such as self-produced podcasts, … I think it’s really important that folks learn to question how the information they’re hearing was processed,” Lutzker said.
Roy added in the statement that Henderson’s perspective and approach to housing issues is much needed at the institute and in research scholarship. The institute finds it important to support and learn from movement leaders within the affected communities, she added.
“Theo Henderson is deeply embedded in the struggle for the public good of housing, as well as the demand for the respect and dignity of the unhoused,” Roy said in the statement. “It is of paramount importance for the Institute to support and learn from the organizers and movement leaders in our communities who are ‘on the ground’ and closest to this crisis.”
Henderson said he was looking forward to returning to an official teaching position. He has previously been invited to speak in academic settings at UCLA many times, including at the School of Law, UCLA’s Humane Infrastructures interdepartmental workshop and the Mobile Clinic Project, a project providing health care to people in Hollywood who are unhoused, he added.
Henderson said he plans to use his residency at UCLA to pursue active change and engage students in workshops.
Some of his first plans for his new position, he said, are to create a campaign for bathrooms for public use and to host a town hall at UCLA for progressive politicians to engage in conversation with students and people who are unhoused about unhoused issues.
“We have unhoused people here in UCLA; they have a shelter here,” Henderson said. “It obviously is impacting them, so we need to have a conversation where all of us are good together and really start to get some change.”
Henderson said he hopes to involve and educate students in public policy regarding homelessness and is hopeful that younger generations can push back against negative narratives about the unhoused community.
He added that he was glad that the institute was trying to pursue new, more progressive perspectives with his selection as activist-in-residence.
“Dr. Ananya Roy made it clear that they’re trying to shake things up in a more radical way because we need to have radical thought,” Henderson said. “And I quote this from Debbie Allen, because she always said that ‘If the students on campus are not active or engaged in the activism of the new generation, then it’s dead.’”