Theo Henderson is uplifting LA’s ‘unhoused’ community — with his podcast

Theo Henderson
Theo Henderson, host of the “We the Unhoused” podcast, speaks from the steps of Los Angeles City Hall on May 19, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Al Seib / Getty Images)

To podcaster Theo Henderson, the correct term for people without homes is “unhoused.” Henderson, a former teacher who has been unhoused for the past eight years, says the word “homeless” has become too negatively charged, filled with stereotypes and insensitivity.

In a recent episode of his podcast, “We the Unhoused,” Henderson turns his microphone to a man who has not had a home for a decade. 

Henderson asks him how he came to live on the streets, what his days are like, then shifts to ask about practical advice for many of his listeners: “What techniques do you use to keep your things dry?” “Are there places you can get food?” “How do you deal with people judging you negatively?” and “If there’s a person who’s just becoming unhoused, or on the streets, what advice would you give them, because usually it’s very scary.”

Henderson, according to a 2020 profile, was evicted from his apartment after losing his teaching job and medical debt from chronic health issues piled up. He says the podcast, billed as “for the unhoused community about the unhoused community,” gives a platform to a community that has long been marginalized by society — and the media. 

The episodes, which are recorded and edited on Henderson’s phone, typically stretch more than an hour — sometimes more than two hours — and feature long-form interviews with unhoused residents, activists, community leaders and service providers. Henderson also covers news, like the clearing of an encampment in March that led to protests and clashes with Los Angeles police, and offers media criticism when he thinks mainstream news coverage gets it wrong. 

While the podcast started in Los Angeles, where Henderson is one of the city’s more than 63,000  people without a house or apartment, he started traveling to cover issues faced by unhoused residents across California. “We the Unhoused,” which started two years ago and now has 49 episodes and more than 500 subscribers on Patreon who donate monthly, has become important listening not just for the unhoused and activists, but even for members of the Los Angeles City Council.

Henderson says it’s because he offers something that mainstream media doesn’t — and can’t — the unfiltered perspectives of marginalized people, who are too often ignored by the media or portrayed in demeaning ways, despite growing housing insecurity across the country. 

“You can’t talk to [unhoused people] and expect them to tell their life story in five minutes so you have time for the next commercial break,” he said. “It is a ridiculous notion. There’s all types of forces at play, and it requires nuance, it requires subtlety, it requires active listening, and most importantly, what it requires is compassion and empathy that you have to have an understanding that this is a very volatile issue. No one listens to unhoused people unless it’s for a sound bite or unless they’re on their way to jail.

NBCU Academy spoke with Henderson about what journalists often get wrong about unhoused people, what “We the Unhoused” offers that mainstream outlets can’t — and what it would take for the industry to do better. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Why did you start “We the Unhoused”?

Mainstream media was demonizing unhoused people. When some criminal activity is done by unhoused people, they always make sure to know this person was unhoused. They vilify the way they live without any compassion or understanding or context. Mainstream journalists tend to talk over you or edit out the whole context of what you’re trying to say. But you need to let someone in a vulnerable position talk. I get feedback from unhoused people saying, “I feel like someone finally listens to me instead of telling me how my existence is.” 

“The whole point of unhoused news sprang from the blindness of housed journalists.”

You can’t cover unhoused people the way you cover housed people — that’s part of the reason they’re going to distrust you and why you have such a hard time getting quality interviews. It’s very difficult for a mainstream media person to hear that, because they want to believe that they’re doing a good job. But unhoused people live this lifestyle 24 hours a day. You can’t talk to them and expect them to tell their life story in five minutes so you have time for the next commercial break. It is a ridiculous notion.

There’s all types of forces at play, and it requires nuance, it requires subtlety, it requires active listening, and most importantly, what it requires is compassion and empathy that you have to have an understanding that this is a very volatile issue. No one listens to unhoused people unless it’s for a sound bite or unless they’re on their way to jail. 

How did you start?

I was going to do something completely different. I’m an educator, so I was going to do something like write a book or a magazine. It just so happened that a journalist invited me on one of the shows. She said, “You should do a podcast.” I had never even heard of a podcast, I was like, “What is a podcast?” I do newspapers, I know YouTube. When she started explaining it to me, I said, “I don’t have the financial wherewithal to do this.” But I thought about it and I started talking with other media outlets and saw how they continue to ignore, demonize and dismiss unhoused experiences. 

I had to start out simply with my phone. My friends that are unhoused were very gracious, very patient. I don’t have tech people behind me. I had to go and redo some of the interviews again, I had to go on the bus or train to go and see other unhoused people in other areas.

Then I started to look at the mainstream media plot holes, or blind spots. If you look at the news — and this is something every journalist should do — look at how you present it. It’s from one, the idea of neutrality; secondly it’s from a housed perspective. How many times can you tell me where a housed member has committed violence against an unhoused person? You can’t think of any. If you watch from a housed perspective, that would be the end of it. But if you watch from an unhoused perspective, it would infuriate you, because we know housed people do violence against unhoused people. If you don’t cover that story, if you don’t cover the angle of, “This was a housed person,” and instead of the first thing you hear is an unhoused person runs butt-naked down the street, if you don’t report it that way, it changes the whole dynamic. The whole point of unhoused news sprang from the blindness of housed journalists. They don’t see it from the lens of unhoused people, because they can’t. You can only go from the lens you come from. 

How can mainstream news outlets improve their coverage?

It’s going to be difficult because mainstream media has been on a bedrock of certain principles, and it’s going to require them to understand that they’re going to have to meet the situation where it is and require being creative and thinking outside the box. I don’t expect housed people to understand all the issues.

“I’m basically presenting [unhoused people’s] stories and listening to them. Housed journalists don’t have the time sometimes or don’t have the bandwidth.”

What I do know is allowing programs like “We the Unhoused” to reach the audience to understand that this is a world that’s completely different, and I’m basically presenting their stories and listening to them. Housed journalists don’t have the time sometimes or don’t have the bandwidth, or they feel like they want to get down to the story, and I don’t know if people can sense that, and so they back off or shut down or give you what you want to hear, and it doesn’t really cover the information, and they just move on. Those are the things that mainstream media is going to have to take stronger stock in doing. 

Another thing is that they’re going to have to make amends for the fact that they have been part of the problem. They like to pretend like they have no part in creating the harm, but for instance, the Los Angeles Times is finally talking about the racism that was going on 30, 40 years ago. Mainstream media is going to have to do some apologizing and saying, “We created some harm, and this is how we’re going to have to get this right.” But I don’t see mainstream media doing that.

Why did you decide to expand the podcast outside Los Angeles, and what have you learned from going to other cities and connecting with folks there?

At first I was focusing on LA, and I was getting direct messages from people outside LA. One was from the U.K. to cover the unhoused there. There was one in Europe that wanted me to come, one in Marin County [in Northern California], Mexico, Austin, Texas. Unhoused people, I want to be clear. It’s not mainstream media. It’s unhoused people that are asking me to go to these places and investigate stories. 

What’s been the impact of the podcast since you started?

From the housed perspective, many of them are surprised — they’re very appreciative. Personally it’s a surprise. It changed the whole way people look at the media in many respects. And I’ve heard people say, I didn’t realize this wasn’t covered. The 60-gallon garbage bag challenge. That opened the eyes of a lot of housed people about how dangerous these sweeps are and how dehumanizing these sweeps are.

What are you hoping for the podcast?

Unhoused issues will always be my focus. I’m hoping in three or four years to take “We the Unhoused” internationally. I have some friends in Tokyo, so I’d like to go over there and cover their stories. This will be my way that unhoused people will know with certain confidence that they’re at least going to have somewhere, someplace where they can share their stories and not be villainized or criminalized for just existing or being themselves.


Author
Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

is deputy editor of NBC Asian America. She was previously an editor with NBCU Academy.