Mike Lee, right, a homeless activist, said during a demonstration Monday that he won't be pushed out of Berkeley on charges that make no sense. At left, Councilman Jesse Arreguin, and Michael Diehl, of B.O.S.S. center, another advocate for the homeless. Photo: Ted Friedman
Mike Lee, right, a homeless activist who is running for mayor, spoke out during a demonstration in the winter of 2015 to say he wouldn’t be pushed out of Berkeley on charges that made no sense. At left, Councilman Jesse Arreguín, and Michael Diehl, of BOSS, another advocate for the homeless. Photo: Ted Friedman

Guy “Mike” Lee sat at a wooden table in the back of Au Coquelet restaurant on University Avenue. His laptop computer was open in front of him, its cord stretching behind to an electrical outlet on the wall. Lee’s cell phone was also charging.

This spot serves as an office of sorts for Lee, 60, who is running for mayor of Berkeley. Lee is homeless, so every morning he travels from where he sleeps (which he won’t reveal – for safety reasons, he says) to coffee shops and quick-serve restaurants in the downtown, meeting people along the way.

“People come looking for me,” said Lee, who has a broad forehead, deep brown eyes and a long, wiry salt and pepper beard. “They check in at Starbucks depending what time it is. Generally Monday through Friday it’s Starbucks or McDonald’s. If they don’t see me, they’ll come down here.”

Lee only arrived in Berkeley on this go-around about a year ago, but in that short time he has emerged as a voice for the homeless, as well as a leader. He was part of the “Post Office Defenders,” the group that occupied a space next to the Main Post Office on Allston Way until it was shut down in April. He participated in Liberty City, the encampment outside Old City Hall last winter. Lee is active on Facebook and keeps up a steady stream of posts on his page, The Bum As Mayor?  He is also in regular communication with city officials and politicians.

In his previous life, Lee helped run the Buzzard Flats Trading Post in Las Vegas, which sold goods at swap meets around the region. Poor health drove him to the Bay Area where Lee assumed he could live on what it cost him to live in Nevada: about $600 a month. That proved not to be true. When the $3,000 he brought ran out, Lee found himself living outside to get by. He gets about $1,000 a month in Social Security benefits, enough to help him eat and maintain a membership at the YMCA, where he can shower.

Once Lee became homeless, he was shocked by the paternalism of the system and its emphasis on handing out sandwiches over more meaningful help, he said. He believes there is a type of “social service agency industrial complex” that is inefficient and ineffective and that wants to hamper homeless self-determination so it can continue to receive funding from the city of Berkeley. Lee even goes so far as to say that some of Berkeley’s social service agencies are “crooked,” although he praises others.

“The basic message is to teach homeless people you have to be helpless,” said Lee. “We have a system that is broken. It has no priorities. Their only solutions are criminalization or charity.”

Mike Lee, who is running for mayor, at his “office” at Au Coquelet on June 22, 2016. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

After Lee began speaking out about his perspective, some of his friends urged him to run for mayor. Many of them were outraged by the current council majority, which has passed laws (not yet in effect) tightly regulating how much space homeless people can take up on sidewalks. Lee and other people living on Berkeley’s streets felt there was a misunderstanding of who the homeless are and that they are capable of running their affairs.

“We wanted to make sure that certain issues got onto the table of public discussion,” said Lee. He wanted “to be the voice of the voiceless, to speak to our higher hopes and aspirations.”

Lee is not the first homeless person to run for mayor in Berkeley, but he is the most serious. Zachary Running Wolf, most famous for sitting in a tree for two years to stop UC Berkeley from cutting down a grove of old oaks in order to build a student athletic facility by Memorial Stadium, ran for mayor in 2012. He has also taken out papers for this year’s election.

“The significance of a homeless man running for mayor is crazy,” said Lee.

Osha Neumann, a lawyer who frequently advocates for the homeless, said it is probably a good thing that Lee’s voice is among those running for mayor, although given Berkeley’s dismissive attitude he is not sure it will matter much.

“We’ll see if it pushes the conversation,” said Neumann.

Lee announced his candidacy in January. Many of his supporters are people who have worked with the unhoused population for a long time, such as boona cheema, the longtime director of BOSS, or Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency. It is definitely a barebones, grassroots campaign. In his last filing, Lee did not report any campaign contributions. He did report he had $100.60 on hand. In contrast, in January, City Councilman Jesse Arreguín had around $23,000 on hand and City Councilman Laurie Capitelli had around $6,200.

Lee has a website, “Old Bum for Mayor,” which is how he refers to himself, as well as a Facebook page. On June 22, Lee was waiting at Au Coquelet for the delivery of hundreds of postcards he could pass out to voters.

Despite the start-up nature of the campaign, Lee has developed an extensive platform that addresses crime, housing and, of course, homelessness. He has set forth a number of solutions he believes could ease Berkeley’s homelessness by 20% by providing “a hand-up, not a handout.” Lee wants to convert the vacant West Berkeley Senior Center into dormitory-style housing for about 100 elderly homeless people. They would pay a portion of their government assistance toward rent. He wants to create a bunkhouse for the working poor, those who earn such low wages they can’t afford rent. He is also advocating for the creation of “tiny houses,” that homeless people can live in. The city of Berkeley, including Capitelli, as well as the Berkeley Rotary Club are supporting Lee’s idea to build a demonstration house Aug. 6.

Considering Lee’s housing situation, one might expect him to embrace all of the homeless in Berkeley. He does not. He is particularly critical of those he calls “tweakers,” or methamphetamine users. Lee believes they give the rest of the homeless a bad name because they live in squalor, shoot up in public, and can be violent.

“We will not be associated with tweakers,” said Lee. “If your behavior calls attention to me and my ability to survive, you have to go away. [If not] “We would take out our baseball bats and beat their asses, ” he said.

Toward the end of the occupation of the post office, a number of drug users moved in, said Lee. The group kept asking Berkeley police to force them to leave, but police said they could not do that. Police told Lee they could only intervene if a crime was being committed or there was probable cause to investigate. Lee believes this cautious attitude is one reason the encampment at the Gilman underpass keeps growing.

“You want to talk about why people are going back to Gilman Street?” said Lee. “It’s because the Berkeley Police Department doesn’t enforce the law.”

occupy city hall

Lee has called for another occupation of the land in front of Old City Hall starting July 2 to call attention to what is happening with homeless people in Berkeley.

Lee has a history of activism. In 1992, he was one of the four people sued by UC Berkeley for protesting the construction of volleyball courts in People’s Park. In 1991, the university had started construction of the courts to transform the park from a place only used by people on the streets to one where families felt welcome. There was a raft of protests, and a group that Lee was a member of, the People’s Park Defense Union, passed out fliers and demonstrated. Cal sued Lee, Carol Denney, David Nadel, the then-owner of Ashkenaz, and one other person, “accusing them of vandalizing and sabotaging the school’s construction of a volleyball court in the park.” UC Berkeley dropped the suit in 1994 after “winning a permanent injunction banning the activists from vandalizing school property.”

Lee said he ignores the injunction against him. He believes the land belongs to the people.

“I do go to People’s Park,” he said. “They think it’s UC property. I beg to differ.”

Gilman Street underpass: For many, the poster child of Berkeley homeless camps (06.29.16)
Homelessness in Berkeley: The fact sheet (06.29.16)
Berkeley mayoral hopefuls weigh in on homelessness (06.29.16)
Photos: Living on the streets of Berkeley (06.29.16)
Berkeley seeks to house those most in need at The Hub (06.29.16)
Berkeley homelessness: A timeline from 1982 to 2016 (06.29.16)
Homelessness in Berkeley: An overview (06.29.16)
Berkeleyside will focus on homelessness Wednesday (06.28.19)
Share your questions about homelessness in Berkeley (06.21.16)


See full coverage on Berkeleyside of the Berkeley Homeless Project. Read more about homelessness in Berkeley. This story is part of the Bay Area-wide initiative to document homeless issues. This endeavor, The San Francisco Homeless Project, includes 70 media organizations. Connect with the project on Facebook and Twitter.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...