Defender of the homeless remains committed, and angry

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June 12, 2019

The San Francisco Chronicle – By Rick Paulas

Osha Neumann steps out of his beater Toyota Corolla wagon and walks into Berkeley’s People’s Park. A blind man stands on the sidewalk, and Neumann calls him by name.

“Mr. Neumann!” the man says.

“How’s the foot?” Neumann asks.

The man’s foot recently had been run over by a car. OK for now, the man says. Neumann moves on. He’s not at People’s Park just to see him — he’s there to see everyone.

Another man beckons him from a parked car to whisper about a legal problem. Neumann stops at a picnic table with four old-timers to get the lowdown. As one of the few legal advisers to the East Bay’s homeless population, he regularly drops by for updates on how cities are responding to those living on the streets and to find out who needs his help.

In 2017, Neumann helped represent First They Came for the Homeless, an organized encampment, against an eviction by BART. In 2018, he represented the RV-based Berkeley Friends on Wheels, and assisted in representing Oakland’s Housing and Dignity Village camp. He’s now working on a lawsuit against Caltrans, which, according to Neumann, has been “taking property and destroying it,” a violation, he argues, of the Fourth Amendment. “People have lost incredible things. Not just tents, but old photographs, contact information for their family,” he says. “They may look like they’re living in squalor, but sometimes they have very valuable things.”

Legal victories are rare, maybe an extra few days for folks to stay put, but to Neumann, these fights are vital as long as housing is a commodity and not a right. “Ultimately, my goal is utopian,” he says. “Penultimately, my goal is to be part of the greatest possible resistance to the forces that make that goal utopian.”

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