My Life in the Third World of America

In November 1979, an article appeared in the L.A. Times describing hundreds of children of all ages living in the decaying, transient hotels of L.A.’s Skid Row.

Within days, a woman possessed, I began seeking a way to help and soon created a nonprofit organization, Para Los Niños (For the Children).

Within one short year, we opened a childcare center in a renovated warehouse for 90 children from 6 weeks to five years of age, pulled from streets, alleys, and hotels of the area. And that was just the beginning.

I soon found myself in a pivotal position in Skid Row as major changes began to occur around me. Thus began my 30-year career in what I call the Third World of America.

By 1983, the lines at the soup kitchens and missions had become longer, and we began to see something we had never seen before – people actually sleeping on the streets of the city.

This scenario was soon being replicated in cities and towns and in both rural and urban communities throughout the United States. I began to dread Monday mornings, because homeless families would be lined up at our front door, dragging their bags and their children behind them.

Those of us working in the field thought that we were dealing with a “temporary problem” and that providing emergency shelter for families would solve it. We soon learned, however, that we were wrong.

Within a very short time, homeless families could be found living in their cars, in abandoned buildings, in rat-infested rooms of decaying hotels, or separated and doubled up with family and friends for long periods of time.

After developing two of the first family shelters in Los Angeles, one in 1986 and the other in 1988, it became obvious to me that, while homeless families certainly needed shelter, what they actually really needed was help in finding and moving into safe, decent and affordable housing in the community at-large.

And once in permanent housing, many would benefit from targeted assistance for a period of time as they rebuilt their lives for themselves and their children.

In 1988, I created Beyond Shelter and introduced a major innovation in the field at the time – housing first, which focuses on helping homeless families move back into permanent housing as quickly as possible, and then helps them to connect to jobs, childcare, and resources in their new community. This model has since helped to impact both public policy and practice on a national scale.

Unfortunately, families are the “hidden homeless” and, as a result, efforts to help them continue to be inadequate. In recent years, the ongoing recession, foreclosure crisis, and increasing unemployment rates have resulted in more families losing their housing.

In a report released in December 2011, the National Center on Family Homelessness reported that child homelessness is up 33% in 3 years. The average homeless family is headed by a single mother in her late twenties with two children, at least one of whom is under the age of six, and it is estimated that almost half of children in shelters today are under the age of five.

The following are typical of emails that I receive from young mothers seeking help:

Hello, I’m reaching out to you for help. I’m a 25-yr-old single mother of a 13-month-old little girl. I live in New Jersey and have no home for us. I’ve been bouncing around the state staying between family and friends. Because of this I have not been able to find a job because I am never in one spot long enough. I am so lost and all I want is somewhere for me and my daughter to call home. If there is anyway you could help me or know of any one who could, please do!!!! Thank you for taking the time out to read this. (Name Withheld)

I am a single mother of one child, recently got off welfare. I have about a year and a half to finish school and I am trying to the best of my ability to take care of my baby. My son and I are house to house right now with no type of permanent housing…and it is just very hard to stay focused. Are there any programs for a struggling single mother that is trying to do well for herself and her family but just needs a little help to provide a roof for him. I have a full time job as an Infant Toddler Teacher. I have an AA Degree and trying to obtain my BA. I am not a drug abuser, or any such. Please help me if you can or direct me to someone that can. (Name Withheld)

In 2010, I founded Partnering for Change: the National Institute for Innovative Strategies to Combat Family Homelessness and Poverty, taking my earlier work in the field to larger scale.

But I know that this effort is not enough and that I need a louder voice. I believe that the book I intend to write, My Life in the Third World of America, can be that louder voice.

Within the context of my personal journey, the book will offer keen insight into faulty public policies and practices over the past three decades and show how recent changes in federal policy can have more positive impact in the future.

The book will give voice to homeless families and include photographs and real-life stories to help educate the public about their plight. I believe that my story will also support women who feel helpless to take action against social injustices around them, and support them in their journey if it has already started.

I feel strongly that my proposed project can make a difference, and will be very grateful for any support to my Kickstarter campaign that might be offered.


Photo caption: Previously homeless for six months, mother and child celebrate their new lives in an apartment of their own.

About the Author

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Tanya Tull, a leading expert on family homelessness, is both a social activist and social entrepreneur. In 1980, she founded Para Los Niños in L.A.’s Skid Row. In 1988, she founded Beyond Shelter, introducing an innovation in the field – “housing first” to end family homelessness, which has since helped to transform public policy and practice on a national scale. She was a Senior Fellow at the UCLA School of Public Affairs and is currently a Senior Fellow at Ashoka, the global organization of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. Partnering for Change is the fifth nonprofit organization she has founded.

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