Mama West - Latonya Smith
Latonya Smith playing the keyboard at a march with Where Do We Go Berkeley in 2019. Credit: Yesica Prado

Latonya Smith, known as “Mama West,” died on July 4 in Alameda at 49. She was a beloved, prominent figure in the Berkeley street community, where she lived most of her life.

The Alameda County coroner’s office said she died of natural causes, including peritonitis and an ulcer.

Smith’s daughter, Jamara West, said her mother had recently found housing after many years of living on the street, and her family is shaken by her sudden passing. The two reconnected for the first time as adults last year.

Smith lived at the former encampment at University Avenue and Frontage Road and by Interstate 80 before finding permanent supportive housing this year. People who knew her said she had a tough life but always protected others and found solace in music.

She was involved in founding “Where Do We Go” Berkeley, which was born out of protests in 2019 when Caltrans sought to close down the West Berkeley encampments near Interstate 80. The encampment was ultimately closed last summer after the city and Caltrans offered alternate housing to the occupants.

Lawyer Andrea Henson, who continues to advocate for homeless residents through Where Do We Go, was close with Smith. Henson said she was caught off guard by the death of her friend, whom she cherished many memories with.

On Christmas Eve in 2019, the two hooked up a phone to a portable speaker and played karaoke throughout the night in West Berkeley. Cherelle’s “Saturday Love,” Alexander O’Neal, Whitney Houston and Beyonce tunes filled up the encampment, paired with their giddy voices as others watched and sang along.

“She was extraordinary — she was a public figure,” Henson said, describing how Smith protected people around her.

Mama West - Latonya Smith
Latonya Smith and Andrea Henson at a march with Where Do We Go Berkeley in 2019. Credit: Yesica Prado

When homeless residents protested against the Caltrans sweeps in 2019, Henson recalled that Smith — who loved music — put a keyboard in a shopping cart and played it down University Avenue from the encampments to City Hall. Smith wrote and performed her gospel songs, and you could often hear her singing if you passed by the West Berkeley encampments.

Though housed, Henson lived at the encampments for periods during the protests, and Smith brought Henson closer to her tent for protection. Mike Zint, an outspoken Berkeley homeless activist who died in 2020, once said he had never seen a woman as strong as Smith, Henson said.

“Everyone who met her was touched by her. Some of the men in the encampments would come out and try to cuss her out, but she would stand toe to toe and nose to nose,” Henson said. “She was a force to be reckoned with.”

She cared for many people as her street family and was a maternal figure in the homeless community.

“Most women who are homeless have children who are not with them,” Henson said. “It’s a pain and an aching that never went away. In the quiet times, Ms. West would think about them.”

In February 2020, Smith suffered severe burns in a fire at her encampment that burned down her tent. In the process, she lost one of the seven puppies she was taking care of; the rest were later taken away by Berkeley Animal Care Services, Henson said. She and others fought to get Smith’s beloved pets back but were unsuccessful. Of all the trials in her life, Henson said it was one moment that really broke her.

After a long search, Smith’s daughter had recently reconnected with her

YouTube video
Smith sings a gospel song at her encampment in 2019. Video: Andrea Henson

Jamara West grew up estranged from her mother, who had 11 children. West said Smith had her first child at the age of 13 and experienced inordinately difficult circumstances that separated her from her family throughout her life, which began in Oakland with a mother who was also homeless.

West began searching for her mother last year, which led to many dead ends and false alarms. She didn’t know if her mother was in Oakland or Berkeley and said she spent many nights searching for her.

Days before her birthday in July of last year, she heard from her father that someone had met her mother on the street. She pursued the information and finally found Smith in Berkeley days before she was placed at the Rodeway Inn, which was used as alternate housing for former West Berkeley encampment occupants at the time.

Smith immediately recognized her daughter’s mannerisms and face, even though she hadn’t seen West since she was 3 years old.

“She remembered small things like birthmarks, my voice, my face,” West said. “Even the way I walk, she was like — ‘Oh my god, you walk like me?'”

West said the reconnection was life-affirming, helping her understand her own personality in all its impatience, generosity and quirks after losing that context as a child.

In June, West and Smith finally shared some personal time when Smith moved into an apartment in Alameda, which was a dream come true for her. Henson said even in the encampments, Smith always divided her tent into a sitting room, kitchen and bedroom, and she had waited a long time for a home that she could make her own. West said her mother enjoyed cooking seafood and sharing food with her new neighbors. She took her shopping and treated her to nice restaurants.

“The cards that she was dealt with, she did the best she could. She wasn’t perfect, but I knew she tried her best,” West said. “I’m just extremely grateful to have been able to experience [her] love at first sight.”

West is upset by the circumstances of Smith’s death and questions why her mother wasn’t treated for her health conditions before she was released from the hospital. She said her mother died only hours after being discharged from the emergency room, and she was initially told the cause of death was COVID-19.

West is trying to organize a funeral and memorial service in Berkeley for Smith’s friends.

“My mom fought for her whole life, and she fought for her last days,” West said. “I have to fight for her now.”

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...