In the world of homeless advocacy, Osha Neumann is one of the giants. Tall and gentle, he often wears a white beard and a fleece cap. He is a quiet listener with an easy demeanor: nodding along while you speak and seeming to listen carefully without judgment. He is patient and has a good sense of humor. A formerly houseless woman named Mama Bear recalls one afternoon when an encampment resident was getting frustrated with him. By way of an insult, the resident yelled, “I’ll sue you!”
With a smile Neumann replied, “I’ll represent you!”
Neumann, who will be 83 years old on Valentine’s Day, retired from his law practice at the East Bay Community Law Center in January. Though his relationship to legal work will change, he says he does not plan to step away from it entirely.
“The struggle will continue, and I expect I will continue to be a part of it, just not at EBCLC,” he told Street Spirit.
In 2003, Neumann first established the homeless practice at the East Bay Community Law Center, representing people who were being cited for sleeping, sitting, and camping—the crimes of existing in public space. Now a recognized branch of the Center’s work, the homeless legal practice will be continued by Andrea Henson, who has worked with Neumann—first as a volunteer and then as a lawyer herself—for years; as well as Brigitte Nicoletti, who graduated from Berkeley Law in 2020.
Neumann’s practice employs a broad legal strategy to defend the rights of unhoused people. He has occasionally pursued cases that have sweeping legal implications: for example, he was part of a team of lawyers that brought a class-action lawsuit against Caltrans in 2016, calling for more humane procedures for clearing encampments. The team won the suit in 2020, requiring Caltrans to pay $2 million to unhoused people for destroying their property during sweeps—up to $5,500 for each plaintiff.
But he has also represented hundreds of unhoused people who go to court to fight citations or mistreatment. Neumann has advocated for people evicted from shelters or transitional houses without due process, and he speaks out against anti-homeless policies in front of city council. He meets people at their tents and drives them to court to help them face whatever trouble they’re in.
Crucially, he has paired this practice with an active effort to make sure that unhoused people can advocate for themselves. He goes out of his way to educate the public, and often passes out pocket-sized cards with phone numbers for legal advice and information about rights—how to navigate sit/lie laws, for example, or trespassing.
This focus sets Neumann apart in the legal profession—this reporter could find no comparable homeless practice in the Bay Area. But on the street, he is best known for something simple: always showing up.
“When he got out of law school and started practicing law, he decided to help the underdog, and I was the underdog,” Jimbow, a formerly houseless friend of Neumann’s, told Street Spirit. “He helped us with law, making us realize we had rights. He was always there when there was something going on.”
One morning in 2019, Mama Bear recalls waking up to a Berkeley Police Officer shaking her foot. The officer was angry. He threatened to cite Mama Bear and Public Works employees were about to sweep her Camelia Street encampment.
Neumann arrived out of nowhere. After a few words, the cop became cordial—suggesting other places Mama Bear could set up camp to avoid getting bothered by police.
“He is my best, strongest advocate in so many areas,” said Mama Bear, adding that Neumann spent years helping her find housing. She keeps his number close at hand, knowing he will show up in a flash to help when needed.
After 35 years of persistent work, Neumann’s view is somewhat measured. “Things don’t change,” he says. “It’s the same fights, against displacement, [and for for] human and constitutional rights, all those fights continue. We haven’t won any of the struggles I’ve been in throughout my life, but we have kept alive a resistance. That’s all we can do, is keep alive a resistance.”
Neumann was born in 1939 to German Jewish parents, three years after they immigrated to New York to escape Nazism. In America, his parents found a place in communities of exile, which included people such as Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Albert Einstein. His father, Franz Neumann, was a prominent member of the Frankfurt School, a philosophical movement which examined global discord through Marxist and Freudian analysis.
As a child, Neumann developed the overwhelming sensation that he did not fit within this intensely rational environment. However, unable to see a path other than academia, he attended Swarthmore, where he was miserable, and then enrolled in a graduate program at Yale. But after his first year of graduate school, Neumann dropped out and moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to become a painter. There, he became a founding member of an anarchist street gang called Up Against the Wall Motherfucker—a group of countercultural outcasts who decried the nonviolent resistance of “flower power” and organized for total revolution. They held rallies, wrote manifestos, hosted free meals, and engaged in violent confrontations with the police.
Running through the streets of New York and dodging arrest made Neumann feel alive. The Motherfuckers provided meaning and purpose. But he found himself craving elements of the respectability and rationality that he initially rebelled against.
“I felt like a kid whose scary Halloween costume had been more successful than he intended,” he writes in his memoir, Up Against the Wall Motherf**ker, a Memoir of the 60’s With Notes for Next Time.
Neumann made his way to Siskiyou County in California and joined the Black Bear commune, where members lived off the grid. They raised goats and drank their milk, built the structures they lived in from wood they cut from the forest, and lived in non-monogamous relationships where everyone helped raise each other’s children. Idyllic, maybe, but also isolating. Neumann left and settled in Berkeley with his wife and daughter.
He hung around San Francisco’s Mission District art scene, and in 1976 painted his famous Berkeley mural, “The People’s History of Telegraph Avenue.” Spanning the Haste Street side of Berkeley’s Amoeba Records building, the mural highlights the city’s political history. From left to right it travels through time depicting scenes of political unrest: The bloody fight to protect People’s Park, the Free Speech Movement, protest by the Black Panthers. The final scene depicts the other side of revolution: people sing and dance, living freely in the world they built away from systems of injustice.
But the painting’s final scene remained a utopian vision. He enrolled in law school in 1984, an organized channel for his revolutionary spirit. At the age of 47 he graduated and began practicing poverty law. He co-founded a booth at the Ashby Flea Market for people who could not afford lawyers and called it Fleagal Aid. In 1990, he argued his first major case, representing a group of unsheltered people who lived near People’s Park.
As was the case for many years, the University of California would not let people sleep in People’s Park itself. So, after spending each day there, a group of unhoused people would move their shopping carts and possessions onto a stretch of nearby Bowditch Street. Then one morning, UC maintenance crews arrived in big garbage trucks without any warning. Accompanied by police, they went from Haste Street to Dwight Way and threw people’s possessions into the trash compactor: IDs, food, clothing, medicine, photographs of parents, treasures from the past.
It happened again a few weeks later. So Neumann sued the UC Regents.
“I was a newbie lawyer. I hit the ground and did it all on my own,” he recalls. “That was the first case I think where I got deeply connected to the people I was working with on a human level. I got to know them and their lives, and built relationships that went beyond the case.”
This ethos is the bedrock of the homeless practice that Neumann built at the East Bay Community Law Center. Andrea Henson says that walking around Berkeley with Neumann is like being with a celebrity. Wherever they go, people call out from street corners and beneath overpasses, yelling at the car to say hello or beckoning him over to discuss a legal problem. He often goes out to check on people, sitting down wherever they are and passing time.
Photographer Mark Leong recalls one instance in which an unhoused woman noticed that Neumann’s shoes were worn through and brought him a pair of sneakers she had in her tent. Everyone laughed, teasing him about the fact that they could see his socks. He brought the shoes home and still wears them frequently.
“Everyone in the street knows Osha,” Henson says. “Sometimes he has difficulty walking, and folks out there will make chairs—make thrones—for him.”
This deep community connection has practical benefits. Showing up consistently means he knows how encampment communities grow and evolve, and which items are lost in sweeps. He sees all the intensely intricate ways in which living outside impacts a person’s life. The expertise he gleans is useful in court, and provides a unique credibility when facing judges, city officials, or police officers.
“When Osha shows up, it turns the tide of battle,” says Ian Cordova Morales, president of the advocacy group Where Do We Go Berkeley, which has worked with Neumann on several legal cases about the rights of unhoused people. “Even if he doesn’t do anything, if he isn’t actually involved, his presence makes a difference.”
These battles can seem small: getting the city to pay for a porta potty, for example, or winning a few extra days before an encampment is swept. But in a world that largely ignores the rights of the poor, Nemann believes that there is justice in fighting for these needs to be recognized—a slow revolution in community-building.
“We shouldn’t have to litigate,” Neumann says. “The best way would be to sit down and reason together.” But unhoused people have no choice but to continue fighting, he added, because their basic needs remain unmet.
“Being able to be with them and share [in] the totality of their lives — that is something that helps me remain sane and keeps me alive. And [then] you have to go to the court where you can bring so little of that. You have to figure out how to translate it into the language a judge can understand.”
Hope at the Albany Bulb
Some of the people Neumann represented during his case against the UC Regents moved to the Albany Bulb, including Jimbow and Mama Bear. Knowing he was an artist, Jimbow brought him out to see it. Neumann saw possibility in the artificial peninsula surrounded by the lapping waves of the Bay. Among the rats, hawks, and gulls, people created a community—untethered but cohesive, radical and free. They made outrageous paintings and sculptures and lived in intricate pallet homes. Neumann was a frequent visitor. He got to know residents well and spent hours making his own art there.
It was a step toward the idyllic world he had envisioned in his mural. But it didn’t last.
When the City of Albany evicted the community, Neumann represented them. Even though Albany paid a settlement to each resident who left voluntarily, Neumann saw it as a loss. He remains angry that the city did not provide housing for all who lost their home at the Bulb.
“If you can’t put people in housing, give us a space where they can create a community, ” he says, “Give us what we had out at the Bulb! But they’re never going to do that. So it goes on and on.”
Most Bulb residents left and relocated one freeway exit south to Gilman Street. Some moved to Berkeley. Others died. Many moved to state-owned land in other East Bay cities, and entered yet another legal battle—Neumann’s Caltrans suit in 2016.
In a way, Neumann has been fighting the same case since the 1990s: People’s rights are violated. Their possessions are trashed. They receive fine after fine after fine after fine. And the laws have barely changed.
Unhoused people are still fighting for the recognition of their basic civil rights, and there is still no legal right to housing in the United States. It is hard to imagine how Neumann has fought so hard, seeming never to lose steam despite the slow—sometimes indiscernible—creep of legal change. But where the legal system lacks momentum, Neumann finds hope elsewhere.
“A lot of things you can’t do,” Neumann says. “You can’t solve homelessness. But you can be with folks in their full humanity—the ways in which they manifest incredible courage, and strength, and weakness, the ways in which they are profoundly crazy and profoundly sane.”
Out at the Albany Bulb, at least one of his creations remains: a larger-than-life sculpture of a woman made of driftwood and debris, locally known as The Beseeching Woman, or Sea Hag. Facing away from the water, her arms reach toward the land, as if grasping for a future unwritten.
“There’s an important lesson in this world about the ability to create something on the margins, outside of this system that we’re all embedded in. We can learn something from that. And it’s something important.”
Alastair Boone is the Director of Street Spirit.