Housing and the Homeless in Berkeley

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“There is no way not to be illegal if you are homeless,”

– Osha Neumann

When Osha Neumann sees people living on the streets of Berkeley and Oakland he doesn’t feel a sense of hopelessness or powerlessness. Nor does he turn away, or want the homeless to disappear, become invisible and not make him uncomfortable, which is how some citizens feel when they see people living on the streets. The word “hope” and the word “hopelessness” are not part of Neumann’s working vocabulary. “I don’t believe in hope,” he told me recently. “I think the problem of homelessness is pretty much hopeless.” Still, he has never thrown up his hands and walked away from the problem. “We fight our little battles where we can and do what we can do,” he says. He’s not alone.

Neumann pauses for a moment, gathers his thoughts and tells a story about a friend named Barbara who was having dinner with the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. When the conversation turned to Palestine she asked, “How do you have hope?” Ginsberg banged his fist on the table Khrushchev style and shouted, “It’s not about hope. You have to do what you have to do.” Neumann agrees with the teenage Swedish activist,  Greta Thunberg, who wants people not to hope but to panic and do something about issues such as climate change and global warming.

What Neumann does weekly if not daily is to help the homeless in Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, and also in Oakland where Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party in 1966 and issued a ten-point program. Point four called for “Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter of Human Beings.” So what happened? Why didn’t that come to pass? Neumann isn’t the only 1960s, 1970s rebel asking that question. It’s on the lips of every thinking survivor from Berkeley to Brooklyn, N.Y. and beyond. Neumann hopes to write a book that will provide some answers, but right now he’s awfully engaged as a lawyer fighting for the rights of the homeless. The book, which would be his third, will have to wait.

In the process of doing work with the homeless he has learned a great deal about their lives and their situations, “pushed to the fringes of our society, along highways and Freeways.” Just so I won’t generalize and get abstract, he explains, “There is no such things as “the Homeless with a capitol H. There are enormous variations and differences.” Still, some patterns emerge. There is a higher proportion of Blacks than whites who live on the fringes, much as there is a higher proportion of Blacks than whites in California’s immense penal system. What’s especially heart breaking for Neumann is “the complete and utter annihilation of personhood,” or at least the attempt to do that with the kind of force that’s used by colonizers against the colonized. Still, he sees valiant attempts by the homeless to survive together. “People give up what they call their ‘government names,’ and take new names,” he says. “They form communities and bond together.” That takes courage, concentration and will power.

The homeless in all their individuality and collectivity are arrested for a variety of offenses, he tells me: trespassing, violation of a curfew, blocking a sidewalk, breaking rules about lodging, smoking in public, which is against the law, vagrancy and not having a key to unlock a door, go inside and lie down in one’s own bed.

“There is no way not to be illegal if you are homeless,” Neumann says. “I try to defend their right to form and sustain communities.” Doesn’t the First Amendment to the Constitution say that the people have the right to assembly peacefully and to ask for a redress of grievances? It does.

Over the last few decades—Neumann became a lawyer in 1987—he has won victories in court, including the right to have amplification of sound in People’s Park, long a Berkeley battleground. He also provided legal defense for a man who wanted people to say, “I hate you,” and who also wanted them to push against him. That fellow received various tickets from the police. Neumann went to bat for him again and again. He was odd, for sure, but he also had rights.

Now Neumann is in the thick of an argument with the City of Berkeley which planned to place a toilet in front of a mural he painted years ago and that has become a destination for tourists and locals who want to see the history of the Free Speech Movement and People’s Park. Berkeley certainly needs public toilets, but it doesn’t need them in front of works of art. Merchants don’t want a toilet in front of their business. That eliminates a lot of potential sites.

The marginalized who live on the fringes of Berkeley also want toilets. Some, Neumann explains, use a pot to poop and pee and after it’s sanitized recycle it to cook and eat. Survival takes ingenuity.

The homeless problem in the San Francisco Bay Area won’t be solved anytime soon, Neumann argues because there isn’t enough affordable housing, though the Panthers demanded it 55 years ago. “In America today housing is a commodity and not a human right,” Neumann says. “Disparities in wealth are beyond obscene.” They were when he helped to create the anarchist affinity group, “The Motherfuckers” in the 1960s. They still are.


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.