by Lydia Gans
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Albany Bulb, a former landfill and dumping ground located at the end of Buchanan Street beyond the Golden Gate Fields Racetrack, has become a flashpoint of controversy, pitting the needs of homeless people against Albany officials and environmental groups lobbying for “parks over poor people.”
When the Albany City Council voted last summer, at the urging of the Sierra Club and Citizens for East Shore Parks, to turn the Bulb over to the East Bay Regional Parks District, loud protests were heard.
For the past 14 years, homeless people have been camping on the Albany Landfill, taking care of the land, cleaning up construction debris, planting trees, creating works of art, and making it their home. The takeover by the Parks District means that the 55 or so current homeless people living on the Albany Bulb will have to be evicted. But there is nowhere for them to go. Albany has no homeless shelter, no affordable housing, and virtually no homeless services of any kind.
In October 2013, the City of Albany contracted with the Berkeley Food And Housing Project to help the campers find housing. To date, only three people have been housed, and several homeless people have charged that they are subjected to bureaucratic obstacles and run-arounds when they seek help.
Realizing that there was no way the encampment would be cleared out by the end of the year, Albany officials then contracted with Operation Dignity for $330,000 to operate a homeless shelter for the evicted campers for six months.
A coalition of housing advocates, homeless people and lawyers have questioned why the Albany City Council decided that in six months they need no longer concern themselves with the welfare of the campers they have voted to make homeless. The coalition also questioned why the council did not use the $390,000 toward the creation of affordable housing in Albany.
The shelter is a farce. It consists of two trailers set up along the road at the entrance to the parking lot. They are cramped, box-like affairs about 20 feet by 40 feet, one furnished with bunk beds for 22 men and the other with dining facilities and bunk beds for 8 women. There is room for people to bring with them only a small bag of personal possessions.
Outside, along the road, there are four toilets, two each for men and women, shower structures behind them, and four cages to serve as kennels for the dogs. Behind the dog cages, an enclosure houses the generator and a minimal storage area.
It has been pointed out that many of the campers threatened with eviction have dogs that serve as emotional support companions, including two service dogs trained to assist disabled persons. Yet, they are forbidden to allow their dogs to accompany them into their living quarters.
Furthermore, in violation of federal law, the toilets and showers are not accessible for people with disabilities.
The trailers are open from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. Homeless campers signing in before 6:30 have priority; after that, the notice says, “available beds will be provided to others who are homeless in Albany.”
It is worth noting that this is the first time that the City of Albany has ever provided any shelters for its homeless people, and is now doing so only to justify the mass eviction of people from the Albany Bulb. Housing advocates point out that when the portable trailers are shut down after the six-month period, Albany will again have no homeless programs whatever.
The Albany City Council has been subjected to a great deal of criticism for defaulting on its responsibility to develop affordable housing for low-income citizens. Albany is virtually the only city in the Bay Area that has utterly refused to develop homeless services for the past three decades, even while homelessness has increased every year.
Before people can even gain entrance to the portable shelter, there is a process for them to prove that they have been living at the Albany Bulb which involves either verification by Berkeley Food and Housing Project or actually showing their campsite to a city official. In addition, there are a number of rules regarding dress and behavior and a warning posted: “No visitors allowed on the premises,” leading one camper to observe that, “even in jail, people can have visitors.”
Not surprisingly, very few people have chosen to stay at the shelter; indeed, on many nights it remains unoccupied. A report on November 17 in the Albany Patch online news site cited a report by Albany public information officer Nicole Almaguer that “the number of people staying in the shelter continues the recent trend of 1 to 3 per night.”
It can hardly be expected that people would suddenly abandon the homes they have been living in for years — homes they built with incredible resourcefulness out of rocks, metal scraps, odds and ends of fabrics, found and recycled materials. They have created homes that protect them from the elements in the winter and summer, provide privacy and comfort, and allow them control over their lives.
It is unreasonable, if not inhumane, to now force them to be confined in what amounts to a box for eight hours a night, crowded next to other people only a few feet away. And for the many campers whose dogs are an important part of their lives, being separated from their canine companions would be unbearable.
Asa is 38 and has been living at the Bulb on and off for years. He can’t stay in the shelter. He explains, “I just got labeled schizophrenic, so I can’t go there. It’s clearly not a good place to go.” Speaking not only for himself, but for many others living on the landfill, he says, “Also it’s not healthy.”
Asa talks about his passion for creating art. He recalls coming to the Bulb 20 years ago. A number of artists were there at the time and he joined in with enthusiasm. “I met Osha (Neumann) and he’d keep me here for five hours doing art,” Asa says.
He returned to the landfill three years ago after many years away and took up his paints. “I covered up all my old work and made it all new just recently,” Asa says, “when they told us we have to leave. I had to do something so I did some more art work. This is the only place I can get away with spray painting all day long.”
Mom-A-Bear, a longtime Bulb camper, replies with an emphatic, “No,” when asked if she will go into the portable shelter. “That’s like a jail,” she says. “If I want to go to jail, I’ll just go and break the law. I think it’s just as well that they’re bringing in people from other places that can stay there. If somebody wants to stay there let them.”
Scot is 55 and has been on the Bulb more than three years. “Living large,” is how he describes life on the landfill. He is definite about not being willing to go into the shelter. “If this ends,” he says of the encampment, “I can go back to People’s Park but I don’t really want to.” He adds, “They can tear down a camp. Did that to a couple of people. If you go into the shelter or they find you a place to live they can move into your camp and just tear it up.”
Police harassment of the campers is intensifying. People are being issued warnings or citations for curfew violations. Albany municipal code 8-4.3 bans people from the area between 10:00 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.
Amber Whitson, an organizer and articulate spokesperson for the campers, has received a warning and is hearing from many others being cited or charged. A camper named Glen recently got a citation for curfew violation.
“They came all the way to my camp about a week ago,” Glen says. “They gave me and two other people citations at 12:30 at night. Woke me up — we were lying down, me and my dog.” A warning can lead to a citation and arrest if it is found that the person has a police record.
The City of Albany began the process of turning the Bulb over to the East Bay Regional Park District and making plans for evicting the campers last summer. The campers protested and more and more people who feel that the mass eviction is wrong began to join them. There were marches to City Hall and noisy City Council meetings. Community support grew. A website, sharethebulb.org, was created to tell the story and attract activist supporters to the cause. Bulb residents and supporters held meetings and showings of Andy Kraemer’s film, “Where Do You Go When It Rains.”
A group of people from the Solano Community Church went out on a Saturday morning and chalked the SHARE THE BULB message on Solano Avenue sidewalks. (It rained buckets an hour after they finished so they went again on the following Saturday.) There have been camp-outs and concerts at the Bulb and shared meals brought by Solano Community Church, Food Not Bombs and other groups.
Attempts to stop the eviction are still in process. A federal lawsuit was filed in November seeking to block the eviction, but U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer refused to grant a temporary restraining order. In December, an amended suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco charging that the shelter violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), as well as constitutional rights including protection against unreasonable search and seizure and the right to privacy. The number of plaintiffs increased from 10 in the original suit to 29. A decision is expected to come in January.
At issue is not only the fact of the inadequacy of the shelter but the absence of any plan for the evictees at the end of six months. If the eviction were to be carried out, some 55 people would be pushed out on Albany streets and become homeless.
Amber Whitson is eloquent in expressing the determination of the Bulb community to resist. “This is our home,” she declares. “You can’t just drive us out of our home. Surely something will register that what they’re doing is too much trouble for them. Because what they’re doing is wrong. If it was not wrong, it wouldn’t be so much trouble for them.
“What they’re doing is wrong. And we’ll put every obstacle in their way until they get it right.”
Perhaps if the government officials, encouraged by the citizens of Albany, can muster enough good will and good sense, they can make it right. Maybe they will realize that the nearly $400,000 they spent on the shelter could have been better used toward getting the campers into decent, safe, affordable housing. Maybe Albany can be a city that cares about its wildlife and its art and all its people.