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Quick: If you had to help homeless families, how would you start? Homeless activist Tanya Tull says people typically answer, "Well, I'd get them jobs or counseling."
"That's backward," snaps the diminutive president of Beyond Shelter, a nonprofit organization Tull started in 1988 to serve homeless families. "That's what the system had been doing for years. We kept building emergency shelters and transitional housing where families would stay for 30 days to two years. At the end of that time, families were often still homeless."
The government's take on waiting until homeless individuals were "housing-ready" infuriated Tull. "Would you wait until someone is food-ready?" she asks, sarcastically. "First, they need a permanent place to live."
Twenty years ago her philosophy was unanimously rejected by social-welfare experts. Now, it's the model for homeless programs across the country.
Tull's path was hardly serendipitous. The apple didn't fall far from the tree for this daughter of Clare and Sam Cherry, both renowned in their own rights — Clare as an internationally recognized early-childhood educator, and Sam as the famed photographer of Charles Bukowski and Skid Row's homeless.
Tull credits a year of picking olives in Israel in 1965 for instilling a spiritual awakening in the Scripps College grad. "I came from a world where one's place in society was based on wealth and academics," she says. "On the kibbutz, I learned that every member of society had an equally valuable role."
Nothing, however, prepared her for her return to L.A. — Israeli artist husband and newborn in tow. She couldn't find work, and they soon found themselves seeking welfare assistance. "The rent was due, and we were frightened and embarrassed," she says. "I realized that if things could go wrong for me, they could go wrong for anybody."
Soon after, Tull applied for a job as a county social worker and was immediately placed in South Central. "I was horrified," she remembers. "I didn't know that kind of poverty existed."
Working with families with dependent children, she felt limited by the constraints of set programs that provided no way out, and ended up quitting.
But two years later, divorced and remarried, she read a 1979 L.A. Times article describing mothers and children living in Skid Row hotels, among broken glass, cockroaches and rats. "It made me realize that over the years our tolerance had risen," she says. "Our country was becoming anesthetized."
Tull formed her own nonprofit, family-based social-service organization called Para los Niños ("for the children"); L.A. Family Housing followed in 1983, then A Community of Friends and Beyond Shelter in 1988.
It was at Beyond Shelter that she began to turn standard procedures upside down. Employing her own concept, called Housing First, she got families into permanent rental housing as quickly as possible. The idea was based on her belief that families are more responsive to intervention once they have a home base.
Beyond Shelter has helped close to 5,000 primarily single-parent families to move into affordable permanent housing in residential neighborhoods throughout L.A. County. Then they are helped with child care, jobs and other services.
Today, Tull can view Beverly Hills in the distance from her Beyond Shelter downtown office, to which she now devotes most of her time. "I purposely situated my desk in that direction," she says. "For all the money that goes to art and culture, the work I've been doing is under the radar."