James Reagan, a Berkeley community activist who championed services for homeless residents, died in his home on Dec. 20. He was 74.
Reagan was a familiar face in his University Avenue neighborhood, where he lived in an SRO at the UA Homes complex for over a decade. He was born on the East Coast and moved to San Francisco in the 1980s before settling in Berkeley and building a reputation as a selfless man who would always extend a hand to someone in need.
Though he didn’t have many official titles, his work included coordinating food deliveries to local shelters — like the one that opened on Ninth Street in 2018, and leading the openings of over a dozen shelters in California and other states, according to friends.
He was briefly homeless in San Francisco but had a lifelong passion for fighting for unhoused people. Friends said he had a wealth of resources memorized and would guide people to the right food banks or service hubs or just buy them a meal.
Toward the end of his life, he struggled with lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The Alameda County Coroner’s Office hasn’t yet released his cause of death, but friends said he died at his home shortly after being discharged from a hospital as his condition declined.
Tim Needham met Reagan at UA homes about six years ago. The two eventually became best friends, and Needham organized his belongings and home after his passing.
“The second day I was there, we exchanged pleasantries, and he says, ‘It’s good to have someone here who’s not crazy,'” Needham recalled. “I said, ‘Who says I’m not crazy?’ We just hit it off.”
Reagan used to comment that he and Needham had “a fault of character that we can’t say no to people in need.”
One of the greatest joys of the last few years of Reagan’s life was Booboo Kitty (the namesake of the cat in the 1960s TV show Laverne & Shirley), an all-black kitten he recently adopted. He would take walks with Booboo nestled on his shoulders.
On special occasions, Reagan and friends like Needham and Moni Law, a housing counselor for the Berkeley Rent Board, would gather at his favorite restaurant patio — La Marcha on San Pablo Avenue. There, they would enjoy tapas and he would have a drink of mézcal.
Law filmed Reagan’s birthday party last summer at La Marcha, where he’s dressed up in a flower lei for his birthday and surrounded by loved ones. She said Reagan was passionate about developing more services for homeless residents, including addressing any possible vacant units or land that could be converted into affordable housing, and was an active member of City Council meetings.
“James was just a person of compassion,” Law said. “Not many people get results and action. He was a man of action, for sure.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he also pushed the city to access federal funding for hotel rooms as temporary housing units for homeless residents. Berkeley ultimately accessed Project Roomkey and Homekey funding like Oakland and San Francisco.
Reagan served on now-Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s Homeless Task Force in 2013, the city’s Human Action and Welfare Commission and the People’s Park Community Relations Advisory Board. He ran for City Council in 2016 against Cheryl Davila, who later became a council member and his friend.
In his free time and when his health was better, Needham said Reagan loved to cook elaborate meals with “vegetables I’ve never even heard of.” He also loved rock, bluegrass folk and country music (“not cry-in-your-beer-because-your-dog-died-country” but Rockabilly country) and would attend shows in San Francisco.
In recent years, many of the people who were part of James’ close circle passed away too. That included Barbara Brust, founder of Consider the Homeless, who died on Feb. 25, 2021.
Reagan was hit by a vehicle in a crosswalk in Berkeley a few months before his passing. He wasn’t hospitalized after the crash. Needham said it likely didn’t lead to his death, but he may have needed more care afterward.
“He was a giver and cared for other people, but it took every ounce that he had to ask for help himself,” Needham said. “The world is a darker place without James.”
Needham said Reagan knew he was nearing the end of his life this year and seemed to have come to terms with it.
Though his health was declining, his mind remained active as ever, and he bubbled over with ideas to support folks through homelessness and housing issues in Berkeley.
Ben Bartlett, South Berkeley council member, said Reagan was a friend to his office and an important adviser for issues around activating public spaces, as well as homeless advocacy.
Reagan pushed for creative uses in empty ground-floor commercial spaces, Bartlett said, and his office is currently working on channeling those ideas into future pop-ups, mini-museums, rent support for nonprofits and more.
Bartlett said he was profoundly saddened by Reagan’s death, as well as those of his peers Brust, Michael Zint and others who have died recently.
“That generation gave so much to this community and it’s sad to see them pass,” Bartlett said. “Hopefully, their contributions will grow in future generations.”