What is a homeless shelter? The definition really upsets Tanya Tull.
"A shelter is a place to stay for the night," she says, raising her voice. "But a shelter is not the answer. Shelters are not going to solve the problem."
Tull is referring to Los Angeles' high cost of housing and the resulting homelessness. She first started worrying about those on the streets in 1980, and now, 24 years later, Tull is fighting against a real estate boom that prices the low-wage earners out of the housing market and federal aid cuts that exacerbate the problem. Tull outlined the issue with hard numbers in a March Los Angeles Times article: 8,000 children sleep on Los Angeles streets every night, 5,000 families will lose their Section 8 housing in 2005 and 15,000 families will lose their houses over the next five years.
But she isn't content with worrying. As the president and CEO of Beyond Shelter Inc., an organization that helps people find permanent housing as quickly as possible and then supports them with services for a period of time, Tull is one of several Jewish Angelenos -- like David Grunwald, chief executive of L.A. Family Housing Corp, and Ruth Schwartz, executive director of Shelter Partnership of Los Angeles -- who is devoting her career to getting people off the streets and into homes.
"When I started doing this work, my aunts and grandmothers asked me why am I not doing it in the Jewish community," said Tull, 61. "I answered that this feels right. I am working in third-world America. And if we don't do this, who will?"
Tull's programs have been so successful -- in 2001 she helped 5,000 families with rental support services and put 220 homeless families into permanent housing -- that she is now working with the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, both based in Washington, D.C., to implement them in other cities across America.
After seeing Beyond Shelter's five-floor office space in downtown Los Angeles and hearing Tull talk about her myriad programs, it's hard to imagine that she didn't even know what a nonprofit was when she started. She plunged headfirst into the world of organized charities and it was her idealism and bullheaded belief in making a difference that drove her success.
After she spent time on a kibbutz in her early 20s, she returned to Los Angeles as a single mother; Tull then worked as a social worker in South Los Angeles and Skid Row and then quit out of frustration because "there was so much poverty and hopelessness and I couldn't do anything about it." In the '70s she briefly retired from changing the world -- something she said she wanted to do when she was younger -- got teaching credentials and settled down to raise her three children.
But when she read a Los Angeles Times article in 1980 about children living in Skid Row hotels, she was so incensed that she created a nonprofit on her living room table called Para Los Ninos (For the Children). Tull started raising money for a daycare center in a converted warehouse and eventually set up a host of programs for babies and children up to the age of 5.
"Then I began thinking more about the families," she said. "It really bothered me that these children needed to go home to these hotels every night. I went to the Community Redevelopment Agency of L.A. and asked them where the affordable housing was, and they said there was none and they weren't building any because the government had pretty well slashed affordable housing."
Tull got to work. She co-founded the L.A. Family Housing Corporation in 1983 and developed a low-income housing project in South Los Angeles. She wanted the project to function similar to a kibbutz. She envisioned someone providing childcare while the residents tilled a communal vegetable garden. But the experiment failed, and it taught Tull a lesson in her fight to end homelessness.
"Housing is a basic human right," she said. "It can't be a reward for good behavior."
Tull also realized that emergency shelters were only going to "recycle" the homeless, and in 1988 she started Beyond Shelter to get people into permanent homes.
Now Beyond Shelter has an annual budget of more than $4 million and works to build affordable rental units and revitalize neighborhoods, create relationships with the landlord community so it can advocate on behalf of people who have bad credit ratings and numerous evictions on their record, help people find jobs and offer support services to poor families.
And Tull wouldn't want to be doing anything else.
"There were many other things I could do [as a career] and I often wonder about them," she said. "But I don't think I could ever have given up this experience of being able to impact so many lives."
For more information on Beyond Shelter, visit www.beyondshelter.org Â or call (213) 252-0772.
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