‘The leadership that came from the streets has been decapitated’: Deaths of 5 homeless advocates in a year leaves a void

The loss of so many leading Berkeley activists who worked to give unsheltered people a greater say in their living conditions is sorely felt, but the fight will go on, say advocates.

In the last few months, four prominent advocates for the homeless in Berkeley have died, leaving a void in the leadership of the movement to give the unsheltered people greater say in their living conditions.

Gus “Mike” Lee, a longtime Berkeley activist who ran for mayor in 2016, died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) on Aug. 4 at the age of 64. Margy Wilkinson, who helped start Friends of Adeline, which provided support and materials for the Here/There encampment on the Berkeley/Oakland border, died June 27. Clark Sullivan, who live-streamed numerous evictions of homeless encampments from his wheelchair and who sued the city over them, died around July 10. And Mike Zint, who came to Berkeley in 2014 and who many considered the lead theorist and philosopher behind many Berkeley homelessness-related actions, died of COPD on Feb. 14 at 53.

Those deaths follow the September 2019 death of Michael Diehl whose work with the homeless and poor on Berkeley’s streets earned him the nickname “the Mayor of Berkeley streets.” Diehl worked as a peer counselor for the Berkeley Free Clinic and then spent 14 years at Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS).

“So many deaths,” said Paul Keahola-Blake, who serves on Berkeley’s Homeless Commission and was good friends with many of those who died. “These are enormous losses. Losing any one of these people separately would be an issue. Losing them all together leaves a vacuum.”

“The leadership that came from the streets has been decapitated,” said boona cheema, the former director of BOSS, who still advocates for the unhoused.

Fighting for self-determination since 1982

The fight for self-determination for those who are unsheltered has been raging in Berkeley since 1982 when people in campers set up a “Reaganville” encampment near the Marina.  And no one Berkeleyside interviewed for this story thinks homeless advocacy will stop, despite the recent loss of so many activists. But they said those who recently died played a pivotal role in raising awareness of the growing problem of the unhoused and pushed Berkeley officials to allocate even more resources toward helping and housing them.

“Their voices are missed,” said City Councilmember Cheryl Davila. “But there are voices, as well as mine, that are going to stand up for the most marginalized, for people of color.”

The movements and organizations Zint, Lee and Sullivan founded have been at the center of some of the most visible battles around homelessness since 2014. They include First They Came for the Homeless, which Zint co-founded in San Francisco in 2011 during the Occupy movement and later expanded to Berkeley. There were the Post Office Defenders,  who camped out in front of the Staples store on Shattuck Avenue to protest the privatization of the post office. Zint, Lee and others later moved their tents outside the main Post Office on Allston Way to protest the USPS’s plan to sell that historic building and linked that government effort to federal indifference to the poor and suffering. They protested for 17 months before the postal police kicked them out.

They formed The Poor Tour, which had its origins in November 2015 when Zint and others set up tents in front of Old City Hall. The encampment, known as Liberty City, eventually grew to 22 tents and 55 people before city officials evicted those staying there. Then the group went on a pilgrimage of sorts, camping at various stops in Berkeley, where they would eventually be forced to leave. They would then move to another visible location. They camped in front of The Hub, Berkeley’s coordinated homeless entry center, in front of Berkeley High and in spots along Adeline Street and Shattuck Avenue, asking where they should go. Berkeley officials evicted those encampments about 18 times. Zint and Lee and others pushed for “sanctioned” encampments where people could set up tents and self-govern. And they sued Berkeley, unsuccessfully, claiming the city had targeted their encampments because they were politically active.

Berkeley has funneled more resources to unhoused

Their fights had some limited success. The Berkeley City Council voted in January to allow a sanctioned encampment. It hasn’t happened yet because the city has not found a spot. The city implemented a law restricting how much space people can take up on sidewalks, but it is less onerous than the one adopted in 2015 and was tied to expanded services.

But the Here/There encampment, founded by Zint and Lee, where Sullivan lived until his death, is still going strong. The 10 or 11 people who live there (down from 19 pre-COVID-19) still abide by the no drugs and no alcohol policy, according to Toan Nguyen, a resident since October 2017. The encampment, unlike so many others, is neat. There are no piles of trash, the occupants have set up a central kitchen and gathering space, and small gardens are scattered along the site. Most important, Here/There is not just a place to sleep but remains a protest again indifferent government policies, said Nguyen.

“They have been really important voices in raising and keeping in front of us the fact that homelessness is a humanitarian issue.” — City Councilmember Sophie Hahn

Indirectly, their efforts and the efforts of others have pushed Berkeley to funnel more resources to help the unhoused. Most notably, Berkeley created The Pathways, a navigation center on Second Street that allows people to stay 24/7 for up to six months while counselors help them search for housing. (Not that Lee liked Pathways; he detested all types of shelters, even those designed to give more agency to the occupants).

“They have been really important voices in raising and keeping in front of us the fact that homelessness is a humanitarian issue,” said City Councilmember Sophie Hahn. “I have been concerned not just about the loss of these individuals, but the loss of their voices. There has been a normalization of homelessness in our society. We have become a cruel society. We need those voices to push back against the indifference.”

Osha Neumann of the East Bay Community Law Center, which has been involved in legal fights against Berkeley and Caltrans on behalf of the unhoused, said the fact that some of these activists could be politically active while they struggled to find food to eat, a place to sleep, and time to take care of their health issues, was remarkable. It takes so much energy to survive on the streets that usually there is little left over to show up to City Council meetings that last well into the night or to risk arrest to make a political point, he said.

What they had to say was effective because it was their lived experience, said Neumann.

“It’s vitally important for any movement for the people who are suffering to have their voices heard,” said Neumann. “They are the ones who push the discussion. They are less polite. They are rowdier. They annoy people.  It’s necessary to have those people in the movement.”

During the pandemic, Berkeley has stopped evicting people living in tents because it is safest to allow everyone to shelter in place. Newer groups are still fighting, such as Where Do We Go Berkeley? which has focused on getting Caltrans to clean up the encampments along I-80.  The group has collected food and clothing donations for those living by the freeway. People’s Park Committee is not only serving those living in the park but is pushing back against UC Berkeley’s plan to erect an 18-story student dorm there.

Those groups, Friends of Adeline, Consider the Homeless, CopWatch and others have also formed a new group, Berkeley Community Safety Coalition, to not only fight for better services for the unhoused, but to advocate for more social justice, Black lives, and reductions in the police budget.

“We need people who are fierce who will keep going going going,” said chee.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.