Tanya Tull
Ashoka Fellow since 2009   |   United States

Tanya Tull

Partnering for Change
For over 20 years, Tanya Tull has transformed the homeless services system for families with children through her "Housing First" approach, which she pioneered in Los Angeles, CA, in the…
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This description of Tanya Tull's work was prepared when Tanya Tull was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.


For over 20 years, Tanya Tull has transformed the homeless services system for families with children through her "Housing First" approach, which she pioneered in Los Angeles, CA, in the late 1980s. This innovative approach views homelessness fundamentally as an affordable housing issue, and thus prioritizes assisting homeless families to access permanent housing as quickly as possible. Tanya has successfully championed the adoption of this model in communities across America. Her groundbreaking work has also included the development of affordable housing and Neighborhood Resource Centers in South Central Los Angeles.

The New Idea

In 1988, Tanya launched the “Housing First” Program at Beyond Shelter to address a new crisis in homelessness: a sharp rise in the number of homeless families with children. When families are in emergency shelters or transitional housing, they are in a state of crisis and trauma, lacking confidence and control in their lives, as well as a healthy community around them. Tanya believes families are best able to utilize support services and break out of cycles of housing instability and chronic poverty once they are situated in stable, permanent housing. As a result, after first addressing the crisis needs of families, “Housing First” places families in permanent housing and then provides longer-term support and intervention services.By defining the homeless experience as an actual state of trauma, Tanya is encouraging a shift in how society addresses homelessness. According to her view, permanent housing should not be seen as a “reward for good behavior” for families in shelter programs, but rather as a fundamental human right grounded in the belief that homeless people are no different than housed people but are experiencing a housing crisis and in need of assistance.Tanya’s model has helped over 4,300 families attain permanent housing in residential neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County and is the leading strategy for combating family homelessness in the United States today. Her more recent work, developing service-enriched communities and defining housing as a basic human right through joint advocacy work with leading organizations in the United States and internationally, is re-shaping the world’s understanding of homelessness and strategies used to combat the issue.

The Problem

While homelessness was traditionally believed to mainly affect single men with mental illness and/or substance abuse problems, in the mid-1980s, homelessness began to impact families with children. This was especially apparent in Los Angeles’ Skid Row neighborhood, which was initially populated by substance abusers, but soon filled with families. Today, studies estimate 40 percent of the homeless in the United States are families with children, and that 600,000 families with 1.35 million children experience homelessness each year. The numbers of homeless families, however, are steadily rising due to the recent economic downturn, mounting unemployment, and deepening poverty.Several factors led to the 1983 spike in family homelessness, including a national economic downturn, extreme cuts in the federal government’s low-income housing program, continued decreases in support for the mentally ill, and the rising cost of housing. Society—across all three sectors—responded to this crisis by developing a system of emergency shelters, believing that the rise in homelessness was caused by temporary economic misfortune.When service providers realized that substantial numbers of families were caught in the emergency housing system for months—and sometimes years—without attaining permanent housing, they responded by creating longer-term, service-intensive shelter programs known as transitional housing. Viewing homelessness as a problem of individual failings, rather than a structural issue related to housing affordability, these programs failed to address the chief need of homeless individuals, affordable housing.. Instead, the emergency shelter system and the transitional housing system (which is now embedded in government funding) institutionalized homelessness and created a new subclass of homeless persons across the U.S.

The Strategy

In 1988, Tanya launched Beyond Shelter to provide the missing link to permanent housing for families participating in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs. Under the agency’s “Housing First” Program, service organizations operating at the frontlines of homelessness in L.A. County—emergency shelters, domestic violence shelters and transitional housing programs—refer families to Beyond Shelter as soon as families’ crisis needs have been addressed.Once families are referred to the agency by one of more than 70 referring agencies, a Beyond Shelter Case Manager and Housing Specialist help the family develop a Family Action Plan, which includes goals and steps necessary to obtain and retain permanent housing. Housing Specialists then create and establish relationships with landlords in the private rental market to remove the stigma of homelessness and create housing opportunities for homeless families despite their multiple barriers, including eviction histories, poor or no credit, or unemployment.. Beyond Shelter also helps families obtain rent subsidies and move-in funds and negotiate with landlords for lower rents. When a family has accessed permanent housing, the Beyond Shelter Case Manager begins to work with them over the next six to twelve months to help them overcome the trauma of being homeless, and then to develop life skills in a wide variety of areas, including tenant education, household management, and money management. The combination of rapid rehousing and individualized, but not mandatory, support services help reintegrate homeless families back into society and provide them with opportunities to pursue improved social and economic well-being. Families are connected with community-based resources and services, including employment, child care, and children’s schools. Within six to twelve months families graduate from the “Housing First” Program and Beyond Shelter’s case management services end.Tanya began scaling and replicating her model within three years of launch in 1991. Since then, organizations such as The Pew Partnership for Civic Change and the National Alliance to End Homelessness have also disseminated her work. In 1992 and 1993, she launched the Institute for Research, Training, and Technical Assistance at Beyond Shelter to conduct national technical assistance workshops, provide training to public and private agencies, develop methodology manuals, and provide direct consultation to organizations and communities throughout the U.S. to adopt the “Housing First” model.The Institute has trained over 1,000 people in Tanya’s model, directly assisted 14 cities to adapt the model to meet local needs, and showcased the program methodology during workshops and presentations in 30 states and over 75 communities nationwide. In 1996, the U.S. Government recognized Tanya’s model as one of “25 U.S. Best Practices” at the UN Conference, Habitat II, held in Istanbul. At the same conference, it was also chosen as one of “100 International Best Practices” by the United Nations Center on Human Settlements.Most recently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency with primary responsibility for designing and funding homeless services, has adopted the “Housing First” approach – also known as rapid rehousing – for homeless families and individuals. In 2008, HUD began awarding national grants in support of Housing First for homeless families, and in Fall 2009 will be providing additional Housing First (Rapid Rehousing) grants as part of the federal stimulus bill. Today, much of Tanya’s work focuses on helping organizations across the country adapt the “Housing First” approach, advocating for national and international policy reform, and developing a shared understanding among practitioners and policy makers of effective housing and services models to address homelessness. She is also innovating again on the local level. Beyond Shelter has been developing and operating service-enriched, affordable housing properties and Neighborhood Resource Centers in South Central Los Angeles, as part of a long-term community revitalization effort in one of the poorest and most marginalized communities in the U.S. The affordable rental units and Neighborhood Resource Centers are designed to help vulnerable residents of the housing and of the neighborhoods to resolve crises and be connected to essential services and resources in the community at-large, which typically are fragmented and challenging to access.

The Person

Tanya’s background has given her great empathy around homelessness. She credits her upbringing with an open-minded, off-beat, artistic family that provided her with the foundational skills in creativity necessary to later tackle large-scale social problems. Tanya’s father was homeless during the Depression. He later documented the first homeless on Skid Row as a photographer and opened a bookstore and art gallery. Tanya’s mother, director of a newly formed nursery school, become an internationally known early childhood educator and author of several books on the subject. Her parent’s careers regularly brought people into their home from different backgrounds and ethnicities—not a typical scene in 1950s suburban Los Angeles. Tanya learned the importance of community housing after college when she lived on an Israeli kibbutz.As a young adult, Tanya’s life took a number of turns that exposed her to a new type of poverty that she never knew existed. At the age of 23, she had a newborn baby and an Israeli artist husband who was new to the United States and unemployed. Having exhausted family resources, they turned in desperation to a welfare office in West Los Angeles, where they received emergency assistance. Tanya never forgot the bewilderment and despair she felt at the time, how her life had completely crumbled in an extremely short time due to a few naïve decisions and difficult circumstances.Eventually, a social worker helped Tanya find a job as a social worker for 60 families on welfare with the L.A. Department of Public Social Services. She worked there for three years, including on Skid Row with the mentally ill. In 1971, she left her job, frustrated that society in general did not seem to care about the suffering she was witnessing, and convinced that even her work with the government was ultimately just perpetuating problems rather than solving them. After a few years, Tanya learned that hundreds of children were living in Skid Row and she founded and launched Para Los Niños: a childcare center for 90 children that expanded in a few years into a full range of family services operating from renovated warehouses in Skid Row and is now spread across the Los Angeles area. Tanya said, “Para Los Niños could have been my life’s work—and it would have been enough. But I felt that low-income families forced to live in Skid Row hotels needed more than crisis intervention and social services support: They needed help to move into decent neighborhoods and affordable housing.” In 1983, Tanya co-founded L.A. Family Housing, which began developing affordable housing for families through new construction. L.A. Family Housing soon became a “laboratory” for social change. When Tanya’s husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer, in 1985 she became a single mother again, coping once more with the struggles of financially supporting her children and raising them alone. During these same years, Tanya developed two emergency shelters to address the dramatic increase in the numbers of homeless families in Los Angeles County. Although many people at the time thought that homelessness was a “temporary” problem resulting from a downturn in the economy, and that the provision of emergency shelter would soon end it, this assumption soon turned out to be wrong. As a result of her own personal struggle watching homeless families, who were comprised primarily of single-female-headed households cycling through emergency shelter programs with no access to permanent, affordable, rental housing, Beyond Shelter was born.

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