‘Gentle of a soul’: Berkeley homelessness activist Michael Diehl dies at 64

Kim Beavers/Courtesy

Michael Diehl, an influential Berkeley activist for homeless and mentally ill people, died at 64 after a driver hit him in Newark on Sunday about 8:30 p.m., as first reported by Berkeleyside.

Diehl’s activism over the past 40 years included work with groups such as the punk rock club 924 Gilman Street Project and preventing volleyball courts and housing in People’s Park, according to Berkeleyside. Diehl also worked for the Berkeley Free Clinic and was a beloved counselor and advocate.

Diehl’s activism included working with the Poor Tour, a mobile tour protesting the lack of effective homeless services, according to homeless activist Mike Lee.

Lee was a self-proclaimed “brother-in-arms” with Diehl who worked alongside Diehl with the Poor Tour. Lee described Diehl as a “true social justice warrior.” Lee added that Diehl loved people and served them “always.”

According to homeless activist Mike Zint, Diehl worked with the Poor Tour for a couple weeks before interactions with the police became too much. Zint said Diehl was “too gentle of a soul” to handle the intense relationship with the police.

Many people described Diehl as a great communicator and deep listener. People’s Park advocate Arthur Fonseca said Diehl was nonjudgemental and did not place himself above others. Fonseca said he would often see Diehl talking to homeless individuals on Shattuck Avenue.

According to Fonseca, Diehl was also a peer counselor at the Berkeley Free Clinic. Diehl talked to people who came in and offered them counseling on situations common among people living on the street.

Fonseca said he personally knew people who used Diehl’s counseling services.

“Sometimes just having someone to talk to — it helps. That was what he was really good at,” Fonseca said. “He called himself the mayor of the street.”

Carol Denney, a local musician and cartoonist who worked on many projects regarding homelessness and music, said she can not remember a time when Diehl cut someone off in conversation or responded rudely.

Denney added that Diehl was one of the best communicators she had ever met. Diehl had an ability to wait and listen until someone had finished their thoughts, regardless of if that person was angry, frustrated or at the edge of their ability to be clear.

“He was deeply respectful of (people’s) need to express what they were going through,” Denney said. “People need a sense of completion, and that’s what he gave them. I think he saved lives.”

Berkeley City Council will adjourn its Oct. 15 meeting in Diehl’s memory, according to Berkeleyside. There will also be a memorial Oct. 6 at 3 p.m. at People’s Park.

Lee said the best way to remember Diehl is to “pick up the mantle” of his work and advocate for those who are less fortunate — those who wish to honor Diehl should take the time to celebrate life and help people overcome their situations.

Contact Maria Young at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @maria_myoung.