In 2018, Andrea Henson was working as a beekeeper at the Bay Area Bee Company’s Berkeley outpost when she saw a police officer arresting a homeless man outside the company’s warehouse. Henson, who had worked closely with homeless communities as an undergraduate at UC Riverside, tried to intervene. “Let me help him,” she insisted, and began to negotiate with the officer. As the officer warmed up to her, they talked about her desire to work with “the poorest of the poor,” and Henson told him that she would soon be taking the California bar exam.
“Well, he’s sued us a bunch of times,” the officer said frankly, “but you need to go work with Osha Neumann.” Neumann, 81, is the only lawyer at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) working directly to protect the civil and human rights of people experiencing homelessness. As Neumann puts it, he is EBCLC’s homeless practice.
Henson took the officer’s advice and gave Neumann a call. He laughed in disbelief— “The police sent you to me?”
Henson began volunteering with Neumann in the fall of 2018 and the two were soon inseparable—“like macaroni and cheese,” Henson likes to say.
Osha Neumann, 81, and Andrea Henson, 49, are two of the East Bay’s most dedicated homeless rights advocates. Through their friendship and informal partnership, they have combined legal prowess with extraordinary compassion to ensure the possibility of a dignified life on the streets.
“I love them—they did so much for us, really took care of us and helped us to be heard,” said an encampment resident, “Batman,” who has worked closely with Henson and Neumann over the years.
“What’s special about them is that they fought for us for so long, through some very hard uphill battles. But they stuck with it, and we admire that.”
Henson recently accepted a full-time job as a litigation attorney with the Eviction Defense Center (EDC), where the new wave of pandemic-related job losses has staff attorneys working long hours, leaving her with precious little free time. But while she will no longer have the capacity to volunteer with Neumann as she once did, their legacy lives on: in demonstrating new possibilities at the intersection of legal advocacy, policy work, and on-the-ground activism, Henson and Neumann have paved the way for the next generation of street lawyers.
Neumann is the son of German Jewish refugees, who fled to New York to escape the Nazis. His parents were Marxist intellectuals in the Frankfurt School tradition, who instilled in Neumann a deep commitment to the struggle against fascism.
“Being antifascist meant you were against all abuses of authority,” Neumann said. “You were for human liberation; you were for justice and the idea of a common humanity that we all share.”
In the 60s, Neumann brought this worldview to bear through antiwar activism—civil (“and uncivil”) disobedience, involvement with anarchist movements, and other disruptive street politics that took place on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He found himself “more often on the other side of the law than this side.”
His fellow organizers were “street people, poor people,” with whom he found he identified. Though Neumann enjoyed a privileged childhood, he struggled with emotional turmoil and what he describes as a “kind of an obsessive-compulsiveness.”
“I had identified myself as having these mental disorders, and that drove me away from the paths of respectability towards those who were outsiders, the least respectable,” Neumann said.
By the mid-70s, Neumann found himself painting murals in Berkeley, once again spending large swaths of time outdoors, meeting local street folks. He still felt a kinship and a desire to fight the injustices that they suffered. But he also knew that the demonstrations, the civil disobedience, and the expression of anger he once reveled in were no longer suitable.
“It feels good at the time, but at some point, a politics of running in the street and throwing things is actually not very satisfying,” Neumann said. “At some point, it’s not enough.” At 45, he decided to become a lawyer.
“I was trained as an intellectual, and lawyering allowed me to use that privilege on behalf of those who do not have it,” Neumann explained. “It allowed me to demystify the ways in which people who knew the law would reel it at you. It’s another kind of power.”
In 2001, Neumann began his time at the East Bay Community Law Center representing homeless folks. His clients were cited for violating the kinds of laws that, in effect, amount to a targeted criminalization of homelessness, such as San Francisco’s sit-lie law (which prohibits sitting and lying on the street) and Berkeley’s sidewalk ordinance (which prohibits personal belongings on the street in excess of nine square feet).
“Over the years, I realized that that work was limiting,” Neumann said. Direct representation, while important, was just one piece of the puzzle. Following this realization, Neumann committed himself to excavating the roots of the issue, fighting anti-homeless laws at the policy level. In 2012, he worked to defeat Measure S, Berkeley’s attempt at its own sit-lie law.
Neumann also fights homeless encampment evictions. His first suit of this kind was filed on behalf of the homeless community at the Albany Bulb—an overgrown, forgotten piece of land that was once a dump for construction refuse but had since blossomed into a vibrant encampment community. Though that lawsuit was lost in 2014, it resulted in a $3,000 settlement for each resident who left voluntarily.
Since then, Neumann has represented several other encampment communities. In 2017, he joined a team of lawyers in representing the residents of First They Came for the Homeless, a South Berkeley encampment protesting multiple evictions by BART and the City of Berkeley. In 2018, he assisted the residents of an Oakland-based encampment called Housing and Dignity Village, who collectively filed a lawsuit challenging their eviction. Later that year, he represented a group of RV-dwellers called Berkeley Friends on Wheels.
Most recently, after a four-year battle, Neumann and colleagues won a class-action lawsuit against Caltrans calling for the adoption of more humane procedures for clearing encampments on Caltrans property, as well as compensation for property destroyed during sweeps. Under old procedures, the camps could be cleared without warning. Caltrans officials and CHP officers would appear out of nowhere, leaving residents with mere minutes to collect their belongings. Anything left behind—personal documents, photographs, cell phones, tents—was destroyed. After losing the suit, Caltrans will pay $2 million for destroying homeless people’s property during encampment sweeps—up to $5,500 for each person who lost property.
“At some point, a politics of throwing things is not enough”
“We’re against the leaf blower approach to homelessness,” Neumann explained. “You bring in the police to act as a leaf blower, they blow them elsewhere, and then later, they blow them out of that place. It doesn’t work.”
Despite the shift in Neumann’s relationship with the law, the unpleasant confrontations with authority that shaped his 20s and 30s remained a thorn in his side through his fights with Caltrans.
“Whenever Caltrans would come, there would be California Highway Patrol police, and I’d have these nasty relations with them,” Neumann said. “They’d tell me, ‘You have one minute until I go hands-on on you!’”
But with Henson by his side, things shifted.
“She was down there like, ‘Hey, you should be smiling!” Neumann recalls. “And they’d warm up to her, and all of the sudden she’s on a first-name basis with this cop who just threatened to put me in jail.”
Henson navigates negotiations with an easy charisma. Where Neumann bickered with Caltrans, Henson was on a first-name basis with their district director—they even became Facebook friends.
“She was able to both do what was needed to confront power,” Neumann said, “but also to treat the people in power as human beings.”
Henson, Puerto Rican and Norwegian, was raised in Sacramento by her single mother, who worked as a hairdresser. She often left Henson, an only child, home with her Puerto Rican grandmother. Henson’s grandmother didn’t speak English, so when problems arose, Henson was the one to call their landlord, PG&E, insurance companies, you name it. She was a good negotiator—so good that word got out, and from an early age, where over-the-phone problem solving was called for, the answer was always, “Ask Andrea.”
Phone chores aside, Henson often found herself bored. Sometimes she would read the phone book—there wasn’t much else to read. “I have a Bible,” her mom would say, “I only need one book.” Then, sometime in fourth grade, Henson received a free book through the Reading is Fundamental children’s literacy program. She was hooked. Henson began walking to the library every day, where she would read for hours.
“I hid that from people, because no one read,” she said. “Even when I passed the bar, my mom said, ‘Oh my god, you always liked to read. I can’t stand it.’”
By the late 90s, Henson’s love for reading had taken her to UC Riverside, where she double majored in ethnic studies and philosophy. It felt like a new world—everything was a discovery. Henson was fascinated by the German philosophers; logical arguments against the existence of God sent her reeling.
When she wasn’t in the library, her thesis project had her out studying the homeless community in Riverside. Many members of the community were Vietnam War veterans, and they would come to her with problems.
Henson was happy to help. She had always been very good at solving problems, and besides, she thought, Jesus never said, “You know what, I’m not going to heal you”—he helped people just because they needed it.
After reaching out to Neumann in 2018, Henson dove headfirst into homeless rights advocacy. By 2019, she had fostered relationships with unsheltered people all over Berkeley, witnessing countless evictions of encampment residents. Members of the community living underneath the University Avenue overpass were, she noticed, especially hard-hit, forced to bounce around the overpass like pinballs. One encampment resident had been moved seven times over a three-week period.
In September of 2019, Henson was on-scene at a coordinated eviction at the University Avenue overpass. CHP was sweeping residents yet again, threatening misdemeanors for trespassing on Caltrans property—and the Berkeley Police Department was there too, ready to issue citations for violations of Berkeley’s sidewalk ordinance the moment residents crossed from Caltrans property onto Berkeley city property.
“They’re asking me, ‘Where do we go, Andrea?’” Henson recounts. And so began her fight for an answer.
Henson brought the question to the police officers enforcing the eviction. They suggested that the homeless residents rent a moving truck.
“I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’” Henson said. “It’s not just the fact that you’re moving them, it’s that you’re confiscating what they need to survive.”
Fed up with the non-answers she was receiving, Henson worked with encampment residents to start a movement called “Where Do We Go?” Berkeley. Together, they organized homeless people, coordinated marches, and spoke about their community at City Council meetings.
In October of 2019, Henson pitched a tent at Seabreeze—the encampment across from the Seabreeze café at the intersection of Frontage and University—and made herself at home. That way, at the first sign of a sweep, she could pull out her cell phone and call for help.
When the group caught wind that Caltrans was planning to evict the encampment again, Henson rallied the residents. Caltrans returned, accompanied by CHP, and no one moved. “Arrest us,” they said. The challenge worked—CHP left the encampment alone.
Since then, Andrea has continued to be a fearless advocate for the Seabreeze encampment community. Her brand of advocacy relies heavily on maintaining strong relationships with everyone—encampment residents and councilmembers alike.
She has made major strides by working with the City of Berkeley to ensure that living conditions at Seabreeze are humane. When she saw that residents had no place to use the bathroom, she raised money and installed Porta Potties, which remain there today. When she saw that the garbage was piling up, she rented a Bobcat and collected it herself, then negotiated with Caltrans and the City of Berkeley, eventually convincing them to help collect the garbage. One weekend, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin—as well as the whole Berkeley City Council—joined her picking up the garbage underneath the overpass.
“Some people say it’s too much, but that’s what we do”
“There are actually communities surviving there along the freeway,” Neumann said. “It would never have existed without Andrea.”
Beneath Henson’s gregarious disposition lies a fierce commitment to justice. In one memorable instance, Henson had been negotiating with Caltrans and the city as they squabbled over trash pickup at Seabreeze. Meanwhile, the rats multiplied with the trash—their sharp teeth made Swiss cheese out of residents’ tents, where they gorged themselves on precious food supplies and mated inside of mattresses.
Henson was sick of fighting an endless war on two fronts, and, moreover, she couldn’t stand to see the Seabreeze residents suffer any longer. So she went to City Council, approached the front table, and placed upon it a pair of dead rats, unceremoniously stuffed into Ziploc bags.
“You have got to do something about the rats,” she said.
The formidable strength of Henson and Neumann’s teamwork lies in a distinctive combination of passionate advocacy and an unquestioning willingness to get their hands dirty.
In 2018, shortly after Neumann and Henson began working together, a Caltrans worker clearing an encampment in Modesto hit a sleeping woman with his bulldozer, killing her. Neumann asked Henson to accompany him to Modesto to talk to the witnesses.
The site of the accident was off the side of the freeway, down a ravine. Neumann, who carries a walking stick, was unfazed.
“When he started walking down that ravine, I was so scared,” Henson said. She and Neumann found the woman’s boyfriend, who took them to the place where she was killed.
“We’re walking through fences, sitting in the dirt; there are syringes and dried blood—it’s a whole lot,” Henson said. “Osha never missed a step.”
A year later, during Henson’s time living at the Seabreeze encampment, she became close with a long-time resident, Ms. West.
“She’d come at night and say, ‘I cannot stand that you are all the way down there! You gotta come closer to me,’” Henson remembered. “So I moved into her little compound, and I was her neighbor.”
After Andrea moved out, the two remained friends—they spent this past Christmas together, exchanging gifts in Ms. West’s tent and belting along to music played over a donated wireless speaker, late into the night.
In January, Ms. West’s tent caught fire, and she suffered second and third degree burns on her legs. She was taken to Bothin Burn Center in San Francisco, where she underwent two skin graft surgeries.
Two weeks later, Henson found Ms. West at Seabreeze, standing in the mud in a hospital gown and socks, bandages dragging in the dirt. Ms. West hadn’t had pain medication in four days, and she was delusional. Henson didn’t know what to do, so she called her “social justice soul mate”—Neumann, who hurried to Seabreeze, and together, they took her to Pathways, the Berkeley-based homeless shelter and transitional housing program. Neumann ran to the store while Henson bathed Ms. West, and after he returned with supplies, they worked together to wrap her wounds.
“Osha is a civil rights attorney,” Henson said, “and neither of us are social workers, but we will always fight and advocate. Some people say it’s too much, but that’s what we do.”
There was a time when Neumann had hoped that, when it finally came time to retire, Henson would be the one to continue his legacy at EBCLC. But the money for an understudy was never there.
“You can fund homeless services that provide housing or run shelters, but it’s very difficult to get funding for the work we do,” Neumann said. “They don’t like to fund a practice that is in their face, confronting them around what they do, fighting for civil and human rights—it’s not so easy.”
The funding shortage paved way for dismal speculations about what would be lost when Neumann retired.
“Osha does, like, 200 percent more than people even know,” Henson said, back in March. “It’s going to leave a huge gap that will be very, very difficult to fill.”
In a happy turn of events, under EBCLC’s new director, Zoe Polk, the organization has managed to come up with the needed funds.
“There is a recognition now that this is important work,” Neumann said. “I’m hopeful that it will continue.”
EBCLC is now in the process of hiring an attorney to work with Neumann. For Henson, who accepted her new job on June 1, it’s a mistimed window of opportunity—but she’s found her home with an inspiring team of attorneys at EDC, and has no regrets.
“I’m not leaving to join another team,” Henson said. “We’re all on the same team, because we’re all fighting for the same thing.” As she transitions into her new job , she is stepping down from her role at “Where Do We Go?” Berkeley, entrusting leadership to activist Ian Rogers.
For Neumann, losing Henson as a day to day collaborator is bittersweet.
“She needs to move on, and she’s going to do incredible things,” Neumann said. “But now I’m 81, and I’m looking at what we’ve done all these years—lawyering in support of that kind of movement for people’s lives. It’s really, really critical.
I saw what could be. And it was, for me, enormously refreshing.”
Julia Irwin is a writer, a recent UC Berkeley graduate, and a soon-to-be law school student.