After living on the streets of Los Angeles for seven years, Theo Henderson is attuned to even small transformations in the urban landscape that might signal he’s no longer welcome. When I meet him at the Hollywood Boulevard subway station that’s in the courtyard of the W Hotel (143 residential condos, 12 now for sale, eight for over $1 million), we’re technically standing in a public space. Yet there is a hotel security guard at the main door, two LAPD officers at the entrance of the station, two more in an SUV parked at the curb, and, perhaps more unsettlingly, two people dressed identically in white polo shirts, black pants, white belts with red buckles, black masks, and red berets. These are the new “hospitality ambassadors” of Hollywood’s business improvement district (BID) deployed to serve and protect tourists, who are, shockingly, still here wandering the Walk of Fame. If we want to have a conversation, Henderson tells me, we have to walk not just away from the train station but also out of the BID’s patrol zone. “These BID activations are a joke,” he says, shaking his head as he scouts which direction we should go. “They are at the behest of these gentrifiers that do not want the unhoused around.”
There are 60,000 unhoused people in L.A. County — Henderson prefers “unhoused” because he says “homeless” has become a slur — as many as 40,000 of whom are considered, like him, to be “unsheltered,” living outside the shelter system in tents, informal communities, and camps. These numbers have ballooned in recent years, making L.A.’s the largest such population in the country. Yet with every change to the cityscape, whether it’s the opening of a subway station, a crane dropping a new condo building onto the block, or the presence of a beret-wearing security force, the Los Angeles where people like Henderson are allowed to exist grows smaller and smaller. “Four years ago, I got stabbed,” he says, a life-threatening traumatic episode that sent him to the emergency room with a perforated colon. When he returned to the park where it happened, the city took away what had been his bed. “I used to sleep on these benches, and when I came back, they used this pretext that they were going to clean the benches. Instead, they removed the benches.” The benches have vanished from most of Hollywood, too. We sit on the curb.
Henderson is wearing a bright tie-dyed shirt and matching mask, both of which are emblazoned with the logo for his podcast, We the Unhoused. Last year, he started recording conversations with other unhoused Angelenos and editing together short audio episodes on his phone that he would share on social media. He has since produced more than three dozen episodes, all of which close with his tagline: “Let us meet in the light of understanding.” Henderson is a skilled communicator. As an interviewer and in person, he is warm and reflective, punctuating his thoughtful probing with deep, gregarious laughs. But when he’s excoriating the decisions of L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti — reportedly under consideration to become Joe Biden’s Housing secretary — or breaking down a complicated federal-court decision, his tone shifts to the urgent, rapid-fire delivery of a rallying cry. “He lays out all the problems so clearly,” says Jane Nguyen, a homeless activist with KTown for All. “Just the way he is able to get to the heart of the issue by calling out the systemic inequality and connecting it to everyone’s struggles — that’s exactly the kind of leader that we need.”
In a city where terrazzo stars display embedded celebrity names, the podcast has brought Henderson some fame of his own. His Patreon now has 600 subscribers, although he’s aiming for 1,000. He’s been featured by the Los Angeles Times, Vice, and Spectrum News and has a popular Instagram comic series with cartoonist Katy Fishell. He’s also been flooded with requests from across the region to tell stories and spends most of his time traveling throughout the city for interviews. He has several collaborators who now assist with editing and videography. But unlike his journalist peers, when Henderson heads out to record a conversation with someone, he must incorporate a plan for where and how to shower, secure a ride, and find a place to store his belongings.
Henderson, 46, was born in Chicago, where he got a scholarship to a local private college and received his undergraduate-education degree. During the Great Recession, he was working as a schoolteacher in South L.A. until his own financial crisis hit: He lost his job, and health issues — he has diabetes — saddled him with medical debt. When he was evicted from an apartment in 2013, he first moved into his car, and then, when he could no longer afford to keep it, alternated between stints at motels and a park in Chinatown, where he would teach martial arts and tutor neighborhood kids in order to make enough money to eat. (A couple took him in for several months, but their neighbor told the landlord, who threatened to evict the couple if he didn’t move out.) He’s on a waiting list for subsidized housing and has been told his name should come up in about five years.
The pandemic further upended the fragile social system Henderson and so many others had knitted together. When COVID-19 struck, Henderson had just sprained his ankle, making it much harder to take short trips to get food and water. Then the bathroom at the park was locked under public health guidance. So Henderson relocated to Hollywood to have better access to services — and ended up getting a front-row seat to an epic battle that unfolded between the city and the unhoused community.
To be homeless in L.A. is a full-time job, says Henderson, as he actively works to avoid encounters with what he calls the “unholy trinity”: LAPD officers, elected leaders including BID officials, and NIMBY neighbors, all of whom collude to criminalize his daily life. Ironically, one of the best examples of that takes the form of brand-new facilities built to serve homeless residents. Since 2018, the city has invested $187 million in A Bridge Home, an emergency-shelter program spearheaded by Garcetti’s office. Twenty-three bridge-housing facilities have been opened across the city, including one in Hollywood, small campuses of sprung structures and temporary buildings with dorm- or cubicle-like sleeping areas. But bridge-housing services are only available to the few dozen people who qualify to come inside. As part of the deal struck with the neighborhoods that agree to host such facilities, the city creates what are called “special cleanup enforcement zones” — several blocks around each shelter where homeless residents and their belongings are not allowed to be. Many of the people in bridge housing who Henderson has interviewed have already been cycled back out onto the street. “Bridge housing is about approval from the NIMBYs. It’s much more palatable if they get to penalize and demonize unhoused people,” he says, his voice escalating with anger. “Unhoused people, we need to meet them where they are. Some have issues; some need to be helped. And we need to have a compassionate tone toward all of them, not just those 45 people in a damn bridge house.”
Unhoused residents everywhere in L.A. are subjected to “sweeps”: when the sanitation department, along with LAPD officers and outreach workers from the region’s homelessness agency, show up to clean sidewalks and enforce a city ordinance that all their belongings must fit in a 60-gallon container (although a judge recently ruled the city can’t seize items strictly due to size). Confiscated belongings are supposedly taken to a location where they can be reclaimed, but Henderson has permanently lost personal belongings, multiple IDs, and medicine. Although CDC guidance recommended homeless camps not be disturbed, to keep the risk of COVID-19 infection low, L.A.’s city council voted to resume sweeps in the zones around bridge housing during the pandemic. This resulted in a showdown in Hollywood in August in which activists blocked cleanup crews. As people told Henderson in interviews, they didn’t even trust the city enough to use a public shower because they feared having their few possessions taken from them.
In the early months of the pandemic, Henderson advocated for an effort to house the city’s homeless population in hundreds of vacant hotels — many of which received tax breaks or other public subsidies — to protect them from getting sick. Henderson himself stood in front of the W Hotel, holding a banner addressed to the mayor that read “Hey Garcetti: Hollywood doesn’t need another death scene.” But the city had trouble contracting rooms; some hotels refused to participate. Out of L.A.’s goal of 15,000 rooms, only 4,000 were filled, and the program, called Project Roomkey, is set to end next month. But Henderson uncovered big problems with the entire program through his conversations with participants: “The first thing they don’t talk about is the carceral effect. It’s not helping you — it’s conditional help, like you get in jail,” he says. “They have a seven o’clock curfew. You don’t have a key to your place, and you’re subjected to spontaneous searches. Who the hell wants to live like that? There’s no such thing as agency when you become unhoused: There’s a belief system that these programs have that beggars can’t be choosers — you better just grin and bear it. You don’t like it? Get back out on the street.”
Introducing more housed people to the injustices of L.A.’s broken system has become a crucial part of the podcast, says Halcyon Selfmade, an unhoused Hollywood neighbor. “It’s really hard to open their eyes to something they have intentionally hardened themselves against, and that’s what Theo does,” he says. “He makes them say, ‘Oh shit, I’m guilty. How do I stop this?’” Selfmade credits Henderson for helping him make “the right kind of noise” that got him and his husband placed into a Project Roomkey room, which has worked out for them, even with the restrictions. “That would not have happened if it wasn’t for Theo and We the Unhoused,” he says. “If he hadn’t interviewed me, then we wouldn’t be where we are now.”
Henderson’s words have also found the ear of policy-makers like L.A. city councilmember Mike Bonin, who says he is one of Henderson’s regular listeners. “It is a very, very valuable part of the dialogue,” says Bonin. “I wish more people listened to it — I have come to the inescapable understanding that there’s no way we are going to make any significant progress on homelessness without listening to the people who are unhoused.” And it seems as if he is, in fact, listening: Bonin was one of four councilmembers who opposed resuming sweeps around bridge-housing sites during the pandemic, and he has since piloted a new procedure for cleaning sidewalks that does not destroy people’s belongings.
When Henderson started his podcast, an average of three homeless people died each day in L.A. County. In 2020, it’s closer to four. Nineteen deaths occurred during a Labor Day weekend heat wave when the city of Los Angeles opened five modest cooling centers for a city of 4 million people. Henderson deals with respiratory problems, headaches, and joint pain in the extreme heat, problems compounded in recent weeks by wildfire smoke. “Imagine being out here for 12 to 24 hours ingesting this ash. Imagine people that are out in the streets, and the heat is just bearing down on them, and they’re unable to move because they’re paralyzed,” he says. “There are no cooling centers in Hollywood. There’s no one coming around to say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna pick up some unhoused people’ — no type of outreach services at all.” Needless to say, as a Black unhoused Angeleno, Henderson faces another existential threat. One in every 250 white residents of L.A. will experience homelessness. For Black residents of L.A., it’s one in 40, and Henderson has seen a troubling uptick in anti-homeless vigilantism that, Henderson says, is obviously race-driven. Last year, right when Henderson started his podcast, two men firebombed a camp in Eagle Rock, starting a brushfire that grew so large it jumped a freeway. In Venice, several tents at different camps were set on fire in a similar manner last month. Nothing will happen to these perpetrators, says Henderson. “The only reason they’re not considered as criminals or thugs is because they have a house — they have an aura of respectability.”
But despite inhumane legislation and selective policing, Henderson is seeing some compassionate change take hold. Halfway between Hollywood and Downtown L.A. is Echo Park Lake, where I meet him on a sweltering September day. It’s a picturesque space fringed with blossoming lotus plants, swan-shaped pedal boats rentable by the hour, and, along the western shore, dozens of colorful tents. Before COVID-19, about 50 people lived in the park; now it’s more than 100. There is a community garden. There is a general store. There is an outdoor shower that uses inverted five-gallon water bottles, with a sign reading “ERIC GARCETTI TOOK OUR SHOWERS.” When the public bathrooms in the park were locked at night, residents asked for, and got, porta-potties. After the city cut the electricity, advocates recruited donations to keep paths and tents illuminated, creating a festival-like display of Christmas lights and solar lanterns after dark. “There’s a connection with housed residents here in Echo Park. They will come out, walk across the street, and talk to the unhoused people, ask them if they need anything,” says Henderson, as he shouts greetings to camp residents. “They took the effort to get to know the unhoused.” That shift has come at a time when job loss and economic uncertainty have made some housed Angelenos more open to hearing Henderson’s message, says Davon Brown, who has lived at the Echo Park Lake camp since last year. “Something’s changing here,” Brown says. “We’ve realized that we’re all human beings, even if you’re housed or unhoused. The more the police pressure came, the more we had to stick together.”
On a chilly winter morning, just weeks before the city’s stay-at-home issue was ordered, L.A. police and sanitation crews had arrived at the lake for a sweep, lining up a flotilla of bulldozers and trash trucks opposite the blue-tarp-covered tents. Henderson was there, ready to report on a scene he’d seen too many times before, but what actually happened surprised him. “I saw a sea of people, housed and unhoused, banding together to stop this,” says Henderson. “It was shocking, but it also showed me how the wall of misunderstandings was broken down. They didn’t listen to the stereotypes.”
As he tells this story, he looks across the lake, the skyline of Downtown L.A. barely discernible in the distance behind a shroud of wildfire haze. Under a white pop-up canopy, a group of housed Echo Park residents are setting up a table for unhoused Echo Park residents to charge their phones and computers — sharing power with their neighbors.