His Heart Is Always with the People on the Street

“I don’t want to be another paper shuffler sending people to go here and there. They get plenty of that already. If I’m to connect people to mental health services or housing, there needs to be some significant investment in that. That’s why I’m not going to give up the social justice thing.”

by Lydia Gans

For close to 30 years, Michael Diehl has walked through the streets and parks of Berkeley, connecting with people, talking, listening, and just being present. Many of the people he reaches out to are homeless or inadequately housed. They may be sitting alone and sometimes have unexpected outbursts of anger and violence.

They are people who need help but have given up asking or expecting help. Or they may be people who are deeply concerned about political or social justice issues and are looking to engage with others in community action.

I often see Michael Diehl in Peoples Park and downtown Berkeley, talking with the street people, the young and the old, and it is clear that they respect and trust him. He works for BOSS (Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency) as a community organizer. People who have worked with him and know him well speak of him with great admiration.

Janny Castillo is a community organizer at St. Mary’s Center who used to work at BOSS for many years. She told me, “I worked with Michael Diehl for 12 years and he is such an inspiration to every person who wants to be a community organizer because his heart is always with the people. There is not a moment when their priorities and their needs don’t come first. It has been my pleasure to work along beside him. He has been my mentor and role model for a very long time.”

The recently retired executive director of BOSS, boona chema, said, “I have been a student of the wisdom that Michael holds about mental illness and trauma — my dear friend who taught me fearlessness and kept me honest in my work with people less resourced.”

I’ve watched Michael calmly dealing with troubled people and defusing stressful situations. I wanted to get to know this man with the bushy beard and ready smile. I felt I could learn a lot from him.

His job title is community organizer, but he says, “It seems to be more peer outreach.” The word “peer” is important, and he explains its meaning. “I mean somebody who has their own mental health issues, (has had) some recovery and is able to help somebody. I’ve been on the streets, suicidal, depressed, done just about every drug there is. I don’t do all this now. Sometimes I sleep out just to remember.”

We had a couple long conversations sitting on a bench in Peoples Park while Food Not Bombs was serving a meal to people in the park. Diehl’s job involves connecting homeless and at-risk people with community services that will help them get housed and stabilize their lives.

But the work is extremely frustrating, he says, because there are not enough services to help all those in need, and nowhere near enough housing for all the people desperate to get off the streets. Consequently, there is a high burnout rate among workers in homeless services.

“I don’t want to be another paper shuffler sending people to go here and there,” Diehl said. “They get plenty of that already. If I’m to connect people to mental health services or housing, there needs to be some significant investment in that. That’s why I’m not going to give up the social justice thing.”

He deals with many people on the street who act out, who yell and get violent or abusive. “A lot of people on the streets have mental health issues,” he said, adding that he is convinced that “there is a mental health component to homelessness.”

Diehl objects to the biomedical model of mental illness, what he calls the “broken brain theory” promulgated by the psychiatric establishment. “It’s more about trauma,” he said. A large part of that trauma stems from the destabilizing effects of poverty and the dangerous and nerve-racking experience of homelessness.

“People need to know there is a heavy social price (of economic) inequality and I think that is one reason why this country has high rates of so-called mental illness,” he said. “Homelessness is a major trauma because you’re not feeling safe. You aren’t safe. You’re in a danger zone. It is dangerous on the streets. And a lot of people that have been victims of violence — they project it out. They’re on the edge.”

He admits that, “I had to do years of meditation to get rid of my anger.” He puts it simply: “Hurt people hurt people.”

I asked what he does with people who have been traumatized. His answer was a lesson I have taken to heart: “Get them to tell their story! That’s the most important thing. That’s a lot of what I do.”

He described a Code Pink demonstration in front of the Marine Corps recruiting office in Berkeley that took place several years ago. A crowd of very angry men had gathered, and were threatening violence against the peace protest.

“It became very clear,” Michael said. “There was one guy with an American flag. He came from inland California and he was mad. He was a Vietnam vet.”

Diehl simply asked the man to explain his feelings about the war and the demonstration. “I said, ‘Tell me why you think that.’ And he told his whole story about Vietnam. I just listened for 20 minutes and he said, ‘Thanks, that felt good.’ I said, ‘I figured you wanted to come to Berkeley and tell someone.’ And he took his flag and he went off.”

Michael Diehl has been active on the streets of Berkeley for 30 years, working with homeless and disabled people. Lydia Gans photo

 

Diehl is deeply concerned about the violence in society. He quotes psychologist Abraham Maslow, who wrote that food, shelter and safety are basic human needs. “Safety, which is basically about violence — that’s what trauma is about,” Diehl said. “It’s a violent society. We’re not totally owning up to that. More than any society in the world, we are an extremely violent society. And the fact that we’re not looking at that is a problem.”

Referring to the recent shooting of Gayla Moore, he pointed out that in a crisis situation the police are not adequately trained to deal with it. What is needed is a Crisis Intervention Task Force, a proposal that was considered some years ago but never implemented. Berkeley Mental Health has a mobile crisis unit but it is grossly understaffed and underfunded.

I had been talking about community organizing recently with Yukon Hannibal, a Peoples Park regular, who has been more or less housed for many years. We first met when he was living at the Albany Bulb before the first eviction in 1999. Hannibal told me of his first encounter with Michael Diehl at the Free Clinic where Michael was working.

“Some years later we actually met,” Hannibal said. “I started talking about reviving the Berkeley Homeless Union. I asked Michael and we started the Berkeley Homeless Union together.” He listed some encampments they supported. “We moved on that together, along with the people.”

That is a good description of Diehl’s approach to community organizing. When he sees an interest developing around a particular issue or activity, he helps people work together to make it happen.

The garden in Peoples Park is a recent example. Diehl says simply, “I helped get things going and then stepped back and let other people do it.” But it was not easy. I remember watching agonizing months of conflicts and temper tantrums as well as unabated pressure from the University of California. Diehl was with them through it all until they achieved peace and unity. Now, with a dedicated crew of gardeners, the place is flourishing with a lush assortment of corn and vegetable greens and some lovely flower beds.

“Now it seems to be working so I don’t need to continue,” Diehl said. “That’s the essence of being a good organizer. You want to avoid being the one doing it all.”

He’s not all seriousness. He loves music and dancing. If someone sets up their drums in Peoples Park and starts playing, Michael will break into an exuberant dance. It doesn’t matter that nobody joins him. But he can make it part of his activism. “It brings a whole new dimension to it,” he said.

At Occupy Oakland, when someone brought some music, he started dancing and soon it became a group activity. His connection with the street youth on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley is built on a shared appreciation of music. He will talk with enthusiasm about all the different music scenes he’s been part of over the years.

Economic and social conditions all around us are worsening. More and more people are being caught in a web of sickness and deprivation. But at least here in Berkeley, someone is listening.

Someone cares enough to treat the people who live on the streets as neighbors and friends, not as outcasts. Perhaps there is a lesson here about the importance of tolerance for others. A lesson about respect and human dignity. A lesson about our shared humanity, more important than ever in a society where so many are hurting.

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