Contending With the Shadow of Rainbow Village

Contact Jessica Kwong at [email protected]

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As community activists seek a new parking structure to shelter the homeless who own vehicles, they say they are held back by memories of a failed experiment called Rainbow Village.

In 1985, the city of Berkeley paid to tow 27 vehicles owned by the homeless from the relatively deserted Fifth Street to an undeveloped landfill near the Berkeley Marina.

In addition to attracting many members of the local homeless population, the encampment became a center for a resurgence of 1960s hippie culture. It was known for including participants of the Rainbow Gathering, a following of the Grateful Dead.

“(The village had) the hippie flavor and a sense of hope at the end of the rainbow,” said Osha Neumann, attorney for the East Bay Community Law Center.

After gaining city approval as a parking site for the homeless, Rainbow Village ran smoothly for several months. Many citizens visited and brought food.

“The only problem with it was it was isolated,” Neumann said. “They set it up, but there were no amenities, no looking in, no making sure there were social services, so people were just left out there, and some pretty bad stuff (happened).”

Eventually, the campground became a rampant drug scene and was marred by violence.

“People who made up the village were troublemakers,” said Councilmember Betty Olds. “It turned into a lawless place, it was sort of menacing. Conditions deteriorated pretty quickly.”

Matters at Rainbow Village took a turn for the worse when two Grateful Dead fans staying at the site in August 1985 were murdered. Ralph International Thomas, who was also staying at the village, was sentenced to death for the crime.

“It seemed rather wonderful until the killing,” said attorney Don Jelinek, who served as a City Council member at the time. “After the killing, it became virtually impossible to continue supporting it.”

In light of the violence, city officials decided not to defend the encampment in the face of complaints from the state that it was an inappropriate use of coastal land.

“It didn’t work out,” said current Councilmember Dona Spring. “That’s why we do shelters rather than laissez-faire parking or lots, because if you have something that is not regulated and is not staffed monitoring the situation, it turns into an illegal drug scene.”

According to Spring, the city does not have the money to fund programs that, as Rainbow Village demonstrated, are likely to end in failure. She said the city will instead continue supplementing the shelters it previously invested in.

But homeless activists say Rainbow Village should not taint future plans for a parking structure..

“It’s ancient history,” Neumann said. “(Its failure) shouldn’t affect (plans for the new parking structure) at all. We’re proposing that they designate certain areas in the city where they can park, with porta-potties, police.”

Activists point to similar set-ups that enjoyed longer runs of success, especially Camp Paradise in Santa Cruz. That camp started in the 1990s when ex-drug addicts and ex-alcoholics cleaned up a river and formed a functional community that lasted until the river flooded.

“Camp Paradise had a strong anti-drug, anti-alcohol sentiment, Rainbow Village had a lot of pot,” said Michael Diehl, community organizer for Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency. “(Rainbow Village is an) excuse the city keeps raising for not allowing either vehicle or homeless tent encampment, things the homeless union has been pushing for a number of years.”

Homeless activists say they hope to use the lessons of Rainbow Village as they develop plans for a parking structure for the homeless to be presented before the City Council.

“(Rainbow Village) was an experiment. I think it was great that people were willing to try,” Neumann said. “What you do is learn from your mistakes, the mistake was to put it without regulation and supervision, not to try— that was great.”


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