On Movement Lawyering: Student Kate Mather reflects on her work to decriminalize homelessness

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February 6, 2020

Kate Mather is a student at EBCLC’s Clean Slate Clinic. She works closely with Osha Neumann to fight for the decriminalization of homelessness. Read Kate’s reflection on her time at EBCLC.

A half-hour after I first walked into the East Bay Community Law Center, my supervisor, Osha Neumann, suddenly interrupted our meeting.

“Oh,” he said, looking at the time. “We have to go.”

We piled into Osha’s car, and off we went, driving until we spotted the location of our next meeting: two tents on a street corner in downtown Berkeley. Our new clients emerged, and the four of us sat down on a combination of rocks, overturned crates, and a fold-out chair. Osha and I listened as they explained their dilemma.

At the time, the meeting felt unconventional, but it quickly became the norm.

Clean Slate

I spent the semester working at the Clean Slate Clinic, which focuses on a variety of things: criminal record remedies, fines and fees, and, in my case, the decriminalization of homelessness.

My work focused primarily on two things. First, I was defending people cited for violating Berkeley’s anti-homeless sidewalk ordinance, which prohibits people from having their belongings on anything larger than a 3-foot by 3-foot space. Second, I was advocating on behalf of residents who lived in two encampments along Interstate 80 at the University Avenue exit. We spent a lot of the semester pushing the City of Berkeley to offer these residents a safe, legal place to live without the threat of arrest or citation each time the city or Caltrans came to “clean” the area.

Osha is a legend within Berkeley’s homeless community. His reputation as a trusted, dedicated advocate precedes him. When folks run into legal trouble—any trouble, really—someone passes along his phone number. As a result, his phone is constantly ringing. When he walks down the street, people always say, “hi.” He typically greets them with a hug and doesn’t hesitate to stop, throw his trademark red bag to the ground, and sit in the dirt to listen to what they have to say. He is unfazed by anything he sees—I once watched him calmly talk to a man who was lighting items in his shopping cart on fire; Osha didn’t even blink.

Client Voices

One of the most important lessons I learned this semester is to always, always listen to your clients. Their voices should drive your advocacy. As lawyers, we can think about, learn about, or talk about our clients’ problems, but we aren’t experiencing those issues first-hand. Although we may have some shared experiences, no two lives are the same. We must constantly remind ourselves not to project our assumptions onto our clients, and instead listen to their needs and wants, so that we can meaningfully advocate for change.

This was particularly apparent as we worked with the people who lived along I-80. We spent several days at these two encampments, listening not just to the problems they faced, but to their ideas for change. Their voices informed our advocacy at City Hall. We began pushing for a sanctioned encampment, explaining the difficulty our clients faced each time they had to move their belongings from Caltrans to the City of Berkeley property. We described the physical challenges of dragging tents and tubs through inches-thick dirt, especially for those in wheelchairs. We described the fear and anxiety residents felt before a sweep, worried that they would lose everything they owned. We shared as much as we could about their daily lives, hoping it would resonate and result in change.

Creative Lawyering

That meeting in downtown Berkeley was only the beginning. By the end of the semester, I had met with clients at dozens of tents and even inside one RV. Osha and I regularly walked through encampments, across off-ramps, and into alleys to meet with people. I chased after a dog that was running toward the street and walked another outside a City Council meeting so that her owner could address officials. I once helped carry a woman’s belongings back under the overpass—it was the seventh time in weeks that she had been forced to move, and she was too exhausted to do it again.

I’ve come to call this “creative lawyering”—the work and advocacy that doesn’t fit in a tidy box of courtrooms, motions, or suits. Like that first meeting, it felt unconventional at first. Now, I realize it’s some of the most valuable work we can do.