By: Tim Houchen
August 5, 2020 —
Bay Area homeless activist, Guy “Mike” Lee, has died in Berkeley at the age of 65. Lee, aka “Sam Spade” to his many Facebook friends and followers, was diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) and had recently been hospitalized for his debilitating respiratory condition.
Lee was an ardent community activist and a passionate advocate and defender of homeless rights. He led protests and participated in the occupation of People’s Park and proudly served as a member of HAWG, (Homeless Advocacy Working Group) that established policies and monitored how homeless people were treated and often abused in the City of Oakland. Lee sued Berkeley for violating his first amendment rights after police allegedly confiscated and later destroyed personal property in the process of disbanding the homeless encampment he lived in.
Mike moved to the Bay Area from Portland, Oregon when he was a teenager, but spent the majority of his life living on the streets of Berkeley. In 2018, Mike moved into an apartment by way of the Coordinated Entry System, which prioritizes the transition of homeless individuals into permanent housing based on vulnerabilities due to age and physical health conditions.
In 2016, Lee ran for mayor of Berkeley on a platform focused on homelessness and affordable housing. With $100 in his campaign war chest, he narrated a dialogue that provoked the confrontation of issues of homelessness across the entire field of mayoral candidates. Without the participation of Lee, issues regarding homelessness in Berkeley may not have been hot topics for discussion during the campaigns of other candidates for mayor that year.
“I am saddened to hear of the sudden passing of Mike Lee. Mike dedicated his life to fighting for justice and cared deeply about Berkeley,” said Mayor Jesse Arreguín in a statement. “He worked to protect People’s Park, save our Downtown Berkeley Post Office and was a powerful and effective voice for the homeless.”
According to Arreguín, Lee’s 2016 campaign for mayor made the needs of the homeless population a central focus for Berkeley. Arreguín added that Lee’s activism resulted in policies and programs to help the most vulnerable people in the city.
Derrick Soo, a friend and fellow advocate to Mike Lee, had worked together in Oakland. Lee’s vision was to implement a pilot project for “tiny homes” and to re-instate the self-governed city-sanctioned 77th Ave. Rangers homeless encampment in Oakland. Soo is determined to continue working to make both projects regional models to share with other municipalities to help them address affordable housing shortages.
When Soo shared his aspirations of running for mayor in Oakland, Lee offered him encouragement. Soo is now more determined than ever and dead-set on making a run for the mayor’s office in the future.
This is an example of how Mike Lee inspired others in life. Remembering him gives hope that his life will continue to inspire others in the future.
Candice Elder of the East Oakland Collective worked with Lee over the past few years. She remembers Lee as a “fierce force to be reckoned with when it came to advocating and organizing for the unhoused population.”
“He was always ready to hold elected officials accountable,” says Elder.
“He was very outspoken and always willing to go down into the homeless encampments to help and protect the most vulnerable residents.”
Lee was critical of what he called, the social services industrial complex and he always expected a greater contribution from society and government towards homeless solutions.
Lee said this about the current systems that deliver homeless services and care to persons experiencing homelessness.
“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.”
“My focus is to provide a hand up and not a hand out,” Lee once said.
The story of Guy “Mike” Lee should inspire persons experiencing homelessness and their advocates everywhere to become more active in the process of creating solutions that end homelessness.
Mike once said, “In order to solve this problem we must include the expert opinion of the homeless themselves. When you need a tooth pulled do you go to an expert or an auto mechanic?”
The pure wisdom and persistence of Guy “Mike” Lee will remain in the memories of the many people that he helped and defended for a very long time.
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Guy “Mike” Lee
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