by Lydia Gans
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Albany Bulb is a landfill peninsula located along the east shore of the San Francisco Bay, at the end of a strip of land jutting out from Buchanan Street past the nearby racetrack. It has been a source of controversy ever since contractors started dumping construction debris there in 1963.
After the dumping was stopped in 1987, soil accumulated and plants began to take root. The land belongs to the city of Albany by virtue of its location, but over the years, it appears to have been more of a problem for the city than an asset. The only individuals who regularly used it are homeless people, camp dwellers, a small group of artists and off-leash dogs.
In June, the Albany City Council voted to begin transferring the land over to the California State Park system. It will be a long and complicated process involving the park system and East Bay Regional Park administrators, as well as many other interested parties.
Transferring this land will involve the difficult and painful issue of providing for some 55 people who have long been camped at the Albany Bulb and will be made homeless. Officials have set October 2013 as a time to begin evictions. They agreed on a $30,000 contract with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project for a Homeless Outreach and Engagement Program to connect with the campers. That program is beginning to operate.
A little bit of past history will give an idea of the problems that lie ahead. In 1985, Albany city officials signed a lease agreement with state parks but nothing ever came of it. There are specific rules for state parks. Camping is not permitted, any structures or artworks are not permitted, nor are off-leash dogs.
Then, in the 1990s, homeless people began moving onto the Albany Bulb. They set up tents and built simple structures and a homeless community was born. Artists constructed fantastic paintings and sculptures from scrap materials. One longtime camper, Jimbow, even set up a lending library in his shack before the 1999 evictions, and it has been going ever since, totally on the honor system.
Before the state can take over the land, everything will have to be removed. The removal of the rebar, concrete and other solid waste is also an issue. The campers, too, have to be permanently banished.
In 1999, Albany officials tried to evict the homeless encampment. That effort was a disaster. They ordered the campers to move out, and campsites were bulldozed. Osha Neumann, an attorney who also created some of the artworks on the Bulb, came to the defense of the campers, pointing out to city officials that they could not evict the homeless occupants without providing alternative shelter. Yet Albany had no homeless shelters at all in 1999 (even today, 14 years later, it still has no shelters for its unhoused citizens).
Exiling the homeless campers to Berkeley was not an acceptable alternative. So Albany officials contracted with an agency, Operation Dignity, to bring in a trailer to provide temporary shelter. But all the city’s promises to find permanent housing went unfulfilled.
In the years following this mass eviction of camp dwellers in 1999, the Albany Bulb was reoccupied. Word was out and homeless folks, wanderers and people just looking to party drifted in and out. But a core of people made the Bulb their home.
The city appeared to have neither the will nor the resources to take any interest. Occasionally, the police patrolled the landfill; but more often, the police actually told homeless people they encountered on city streets to move out to the Bulb.
Amber Whitson has lived at the Bulb since 2006. In an interview, she described the accomplishments of the Bulb’s residents since they moved here — or were told to move here by the police.
“Wider site trails have been created,” Whitson said. “We’ve been doing maintenance on them. We do trash pickup, we’ve done cleanup of abandoned camps, shoreline cleanup. In 2007, people who lived out here helped take care of oiled birds during the Cosco Busan oil spill. We’ve done metal and re-bar hazard mitigation, and we were the first to respond to the fire in the castle set by kids from the town.”
Even as city officials blame the campers as unwanted nuisances, Whitson sets the record straight by describing the many socially responsible things that unhoused people have undertaken at the Bulb.
“We created a freebox out here,” she said. “We arranged for pickup of the shopping carts ourselves without help from the city. We planted fruit trees out here, and we built and do our best to maintain the castle which was finished in ‘99 and the library — both of which are not only local treasures, but are also major tourist attractions.
“In 1999, the day before the threatened eviction date, one of the people who lived out here rescued a guy out of the water. And out of the four people who showed up for the cove-enhancement volunteer work that the city is doing, three of the four were people from out here, and only one person was a resident of the city of Albany. We jump when they want us to jump, we reach out and help.”
In spite of all this, city officials apparently have not seen fit to communicate directly with the campers. Nor is it clear what consideration, if any, they are giving to a very extensive report from the Homeless Task Force on “Options for Ending Homelessness in Albany.”
Several of the campers representing the homeless community regularly attend and participate in Task Force meetings and have high praise for the Task Force members and their work. Various agencies and friends have been supporting the campers for some time. Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless comes out regularly to offer health services. The Homeless Action Center helps people apply for benefits, and the East Bay Community Law Center also offers help to landfill residents. Some folks from a local church bring pizza once a week, while others bring food or help haul in water.
The campers themselves are organizing, getting together from time to time for community meetings and to work on maintenance and improvements on the Bulb. They are concerned about metal scavengers and outsiders who come just to party and have on occasion set fires or done serious damage. The campers are hoping to smooth out the road where there is rebar and concrete jutting out.
Camp dwellers also are trying to keep informed on the actions the City of Albany will take affecting them. To prepare for questions from agencies or interested parties, Amber Whitson carried out a needs assessment and demographic survey of the 55 campers for whom the Bulb is home. She cites the findings of this survey, explaining that 21 people living at the Bulb have been homeless for a year or more, 23 are disabled, at least 13 want a job, 34 are “actively interested in housing,” 21 have pets, 25 have an income, and 21 have no income at all.
Whitson’s survey reveals the needs of the campers and casts new light on the potential to obtain housing for people who will be displaced from their current residence at the Bulb. Whitson is now in the process of meeting with workers from the Food Project to provide them with the information she has collected.
Though the Albany City Council has announced an October date for enforcing the no camping rule, it is clear that actually making it happen may not be possible. Neumann points out, “It has taken many years to bring about this situation and it’s not going to get resolved over night. And they will not find placements for the people there all at once.”
He adds, “Apart from constitutional issues, I think there are people who are concerned on a human level with what is going to happen to people. They have some level of responsibility. They permitted and in some cases encouraged people to go out there. So now all of a sudden to close it down is not fair — not the right thing to do. I think people care.”