by Amber Whitson
[dropcap]U[/dropcap]ntil my partner Phyl and I came to live on the Albany Bulb, every attempt I had ever made at having a home, after graduating high school and moving out on my own, had failed, miserably.
When we came to the Albany Bulb, we were seeking refuge from constant police harassment — the same mistreatment that any average homeless person is subjected to — while living on the streets.
What we found was far more than a refuge. We found a Home.
History of the Landfill
First, let us review the background and history of this land. The landfill was created on the Albany shoreline in 1963 when the City of Albany signed a contract with the Sante Fe Railroad Company “for the purpose of creating usable land.”
Until 1975, the operators of the Albany Landfill accepted all types of garbage, even household waste. But the landfill was intended for “demolition debris” and, over time, the earlier garbage was buried under tons of concrete rubble, rebar, wire mesh, corrugated tin, steel, asphalt, glass, plastic and excavated dirt, as well as iron, coke and slag from the local steel mills.
I have friends who remember watching the landfill as it was being created, and they have told me that the remnants of everything that was “in the way” when the East Bay stretch of BART was built (supposedly including the original Richmond City Hall and Berkeley Public Library) is now buried under years’ worth of detritus, right here in the Albany Landfill.
For at least 20 years, from 1963 to 1983, a multitude of environmental groups, including Save the Bay and Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP), sued the City of Albany and the landfill operators until the operation was finally shut down, in December of 1983.
In 1985, Albany signed a lease agreement with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, thereby giving the entire landfill property to the State of California for free, with the ultimate goal of turning this “usable land” into part of the State Parks system.
However, in order for the transfer of ownership and management to take place, the City of Albany was supposed to mitigate the hazards that the state saw in a surface covered with large concrete chunks and rebar.
As another condition of the agreement, Albany was supposed to manage the closed landfill site according to the rules and regulations of the State Parks system (which would have required a strict prohibition on unpermitted camping).
However, once the landfill was shut down in 1983, nobody ever actually did anything with the land, not even those who had fought so hard to preserve it.
Nobody, that is, until artists, anarchists and previously homeless individuals, who made homes for themselves on the Albany Bulb, gradually beautified and improved the “uncapped” surface, which was, and still is, dotted with chunks of concrete and rebar.
The community at the Bulb
Next, let us consider the recent history that resulted in people inhabiting the Albany Bulb. In 1993, Albany police started telling homeless Albany residents to “go live on the landfill.”
The people who moved out here became a community, as neighbors do, building homes for themselves and living lives more “normal” than many of them had previously thought possible.
Then, in 1999, the City of Albany decided to evict the entire Albany Bulb community. City officials set up two temporary trailers that were run by Operation Dignity, a nonprofit that prefers to help only homeless veterans.
At the same time, the City drafted — and had the police begin to enforce — Albany Municipal Code 8-4.4, the “no camping ordinance” that criminalized and banished the previously homeless individuals who had made homes here on the Bulb.
I know many people who were evicted from the Albany Bulb in 1999. Virtually all of them are still residually traumatized. And, of those who are still alive, all but two or three remain homeless to this day.
Within months, the City of Albany instructed the police to cease enforcement of the “no camping” ordinance on the Albany Bulb. So, people came back. And made homes.
Secluded life at the hermitage
Now, to bring it all back home, I’ll describe how living on the Albany Bulb has affected me and my family. My partner and I moved out here on October 31, 2006. We had been together, living in Berkeley, for about a year and were tired of being harassed by police just because we were homeless. When we moved to the Albany Bulb, a new life began for both of us.
I cannot say that Phyl and I had “religious” reasons in mind when we first moved to the Bulb. However, I would assert that asking us to change our lifestyle (which has been termed “Urban Survivalist”) from that which we have lived for more than seven years now, to the very lifestyle that we have grown to view as the polar opposite of our own, is very much like asking someone to change their religion.
I’m pretty sure that if “Hermit” were designated as a protected class of people, there would be legal precedent for saying the State cannot force us to change our beliefs and way of living.
Even then, could two people who live a life where, for the most part, they avoid contact with the rest of the world — except each other — be considered “a hermit”? (Long ago, our friend Sarah declared us “Phlamber,” rather than Phyl and Amber. Could we be “Phlamber the Hermit”?)
One dictionary defines a hermit as “a person who has withdrawn to a solitary place for a life of religious seclusion.” I would absolutely say that we have both benefited spiritually, as well as mentally and physically, from our secluded, nature-loving way of living.
My entire life, I have been plagued by health challenges, both mentally and physically. I have coped with severe ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) for my whole life. I suffered from severe depression when I was younger and my natural disposition has always leaned towards what many would call “neurotic.” And physically, I have suffered a pituitary tumor, lymphedema in my hands, chronic fatigue, myoclonic seizures, bad stomach, back, knees, and the list goes on.
However, my health, although still far from optimal, has improved since I started living on the Albany Bulb.
In a letter addressed “To Whom it May Concern,” my psychiatrist declares that I have “intact judgment. Specifically, Amber has chosen a marginalized lifestyle. As she would describe it, she lives ‘off the grid’ and although most of society would classify her as homeless, she feels very much at home in her living situation. She has lived in the home that she has created with her boyfriend for over 6 years. And regardless of the legal status of the situation, I believe that it is the main reason that she continues to have improving mental health. Her decision to protect her housing situation is internally consistent and reasonable within her life framework.”
Light at end of the tunnel
Living at the Albany Bulb is directly responsible for my generally healthier state of body and mind. However, the thought of being forced to leave our quiet home on the Bulb, and all we have poured our blood, sweat, tears and hearts into for the past seven years, only to go back to living on the streets, is terrifying.
Or, worse yet, to have to leave behind the peaceful existence that seemed like a beautiful light at the end of the dark tunnel of life on the streets, only to live hand-to-mouth “indoors,” with all of our money going towards rent…
And, what about our cat? Who are we, to take our cat away from the only home that she has known for most of her life? The home that she adopted us in!
I am proud to say that I am very active in my civic participation in Albany. When Albany created the Homeless Task Force (HTF), I applied for one of the two positions of “Member Representing the Albany Homeless Community,” and was accepted.
While on the HTF, I met some of the most amazing, passionate and righteous fellow Albany residents. Together, we worked hard to try to come up with suggestions for how Albany might “solve homelessness” using the Housing First model, as we were instructed to do by the Albany City Council. (Housing First is based on the approach of giving a homeless individual housing first. Studies and experience have shown that if you give someone somewhere to call home, many people can stabilize their lives and will pull themselves up out of whatever else is holding them down).
However, the City Council has chosen the “eviction first” approach, against the advice of service providers from all around the East Bay and contrary to all current and conventional knowledge.
Environmentalists for Eviction
On May 6, 2013, when the Homeless Task Force delivered one of our interim reports on homelessness in Albany to the City Council, a throng of lobbyists from Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP) and the Sierra Club stood up and spoke during the public comment period.
In blatant violation of the Brown Act, the recreationalists used the public comment period for that agenda item to push through their own agenda to evict the residents of the Bulb in order to make a better park “for everyone,” as they put it.
These once-respectable environmental activists have continued to show their passion for “parks over poor people” time and time again since that meeting. And they refuse to acknowledge that their actions of pushing for the eviction of otherwise homeless people from their homes go against the Sierra Club’s own Environmental Justice Policy.
The Sierra Club and CESP even use the word “campers” to describe the residents of the Bulb, so as to make it sound as if they are advocating for the ousting of law-breaking, unpermitted recreationalists, as opposed to otherwise homeless individuals, who have lived in our homes here for years.
I believe that Albany officials should not be able to give people the gifts of hope, happiness, vitality and health, only to take it away at the whim of lobbyists (i.e., the Sierra Club and CESP), most of whom do not live in Albany, and all of whom have somewhere to live other than the landfill.
For at least the last 20 years, Albany officials have denied that they even had any homeless people living in their town.
City officials even spent $10,000 to $15,000 of their 2012 Community Development Block Grant funds (a HUD grant allocated to help low-income communities) on a project that was located in a neighborhood with an average income far higher than the maximum allowable income of a neighborhood in which they are allowed to spend those funds.
And then, two months later, they voted unanimously to kick us out of our homes. But they have dragged their feet about any money that they might have to spend on our eviction.
Now, in 2013, the Albany City Council has (again) hired Operation Dignity to run two temporary trailers set up in the parking lot of the Albany Landfill, and they have been having their police resume enforcement of the “no camping” ordinance that they passed in 1999, specifically for the purpose of removing inhabitants of the Bulb from our longtime homes.
They have never treated the residents of Albany that live on the Bulb like human beings. We have repeatedly implored the City Council to participate in a dialogue, but they continue to turn a deaf ear to our pleas.
Instead, Albany officials have hired agencies to work on their behalf to assist them in our removal — as if we were rats or roaches, as opposed to human beings.
They have already torn down and thrown away three people’s camps. Only one of those three camps was abandoned at the time it was demolished. City officials posted notice at only one of the inhabited camps, but the inhabitant was away during that week, and came home to discover that his house and all his possessions were gone. Albany officials did nothing to store any of the belongings of the people whose homes they destroyed. They just scooped them up and threw them in the dumpsters.
So far, they have housed four people, two of whom are already back living on the Bulb. In May, we had 50 residents; then, at one point, we had 70. Where does the city expect us all to go from here?
The subsidized housing plan they are currently offering to residents who have a high enough income, includes subsidies for only three months. When the subsidies expire, how will all the extremely-low-income people currently dwelling on the Albany Bulb keep their apartments? Two or three months is just long enough to get us out and put up a fence barring entrance to the Bulb, before we get evicted from our apartments for being too poor.
Any realistic housing plan would resemble the federal Section 8 program, where we would pay one-third of our income, regardless of the size of that income, and the subsidy would last forever. That is the only way to actually support all of us moving into housing.
Because of the City Council’s refusal to dialogue with us, we have had no resort except suing them in federal court. Albany shows no intention of trying to compassionately end homelessness, and is instead fighting the lawsuit tooth and nail, defending all of their callous actions.
At one point, Albany officials even went so far as to tell the judge that, despite the fact that other programs sponsored by the city of Albany are required to comply with ADA regulations, any program for Bulb residents does not need to comply — despite the fact that virtually all of the inhabitants of the Albany Bulb are disabled individuals.
As evidence of this, the small, temporary trailers that the City wants us to crowd ourselves into, have ramps leading up to the doors of the sleeping quarters; yet, no ramps were installed to allow individuals with mobility challenges to use either the bathrooms or the showers.
The trailers are merely a dog-and-pony show, designed to make it appear as if we are turning our noses up at the things that they are supposedly offering us.
In fact, it gets even worse.
No room — even for service dogs
The Albany Temporary Shelter has a total of four small “pens” behind the trailers and next to the generator, for “shelter participants” to keep their dogs in, in spite of the freezing temperatures that the Bay Area has been experiencing.
When shelter staff were asked if they were going to comply with the Fair Housing Act by allowing people to have their emotional support animals with them inside their living quarters, or if they would at least allow the two registered service dogs to stay with their people, the response was a flat-out “No.”
In October, one of the puppies who lived here was shot by a police officer in broad daylight, immediately outside of a tent that was packed with people. When they came outside to see what the source of the five rapid-fire shots was, they were told by the lone, uniformed officer that the puppy had “lunged” at him.
Minutes later, when a detective showed up on the scene, shotgun in hand, he took the officer — who also still had his gun drawn, long after the puppy was dead — to the side. Before they left, they were already trying to convince the shocked Bulb residents that they had seen something other than what they saw. And, by the time that the media was asking questions of the city, the official police report said that the puppy had bitten the detective — who wasn’t even there when the puppy was still alive.
A complete lack of homeless services in Albany
I have repeatedly been accused by city officials and their cohorts of having “refused housing” offered to me by the City. That is an outright lie.
The City of Albany did nothing to get me the Shelter Plus Care housing voucher that I received in 2011. I received that voucher due to the advocacy of the Homeless Action Center, a disability advocacy group in Berkeley.
Unfortunately, after months of apartment hunting, I found out that I was not able to live in Albany while in the Shelter Plus Care program. Albany has absolutely no services that could be considered the “care” part of Shelter Plus Care. HUD regulations allow distributors of the vouchers (in my case, the Berkeley Housing Authority) to forbid use of the shelter vouchers in towns without “care.”
So my voucher expired, unused. It could not be used solely because the City of Albany has refused to develop any homeless services in the past 30 years, while virtually every other city in the Bay Area has developed a network of homeless services, housing and shelters.
Share the Bulb
Share the Bulb is an organization of Bulb residents and their supporters, as well as people who recognize the unique nature of this “last liberated zone.” An amazing amount of support has come from Share the Bulb activists.
When Albany officials came out to throw away one resident’s belongings, the number of people who showed up at the drop of a hat to support our community and protect this space was incredible!
Artists are part of the support network who help to keep this space alive and flourishing. Please come out to the Bulb and make amazing art, while you still can!
‘Wild Art’ at the Bulb
There is a long history of “wild art” at the Bulb: the Sniff murals, the Fairy Castle, Osha Neumann’s human sculptures, the Library created by Jimbow.
The City of Albany and the State Parks have plans to choke the life out of this beautiful tradition of self-expression, by allowing only art which has been formally permitted, and forbidding non-regulated art. This would be a crime against true artistic freedom!
The Albany Bulb has always been the last place that is outside of the permit process, outside the ordinances. It’s like the last pinhead of land that is truly free and that remains natural and uncorrupted, safe from gentrification.
Together, we can call upon the City of Albany, the Sierra Club, Citizens for East Shore Parks, and the East Bay Regional Parks District to keep the Bulb wild. Together, we can address the problems faced by a growing number of Americans who are experiencing poverty, and treat one another with respect and compassion, rather than with ignorance and a careless disregard for fellow human beings.
All I want to do is go back to the peaceful existence that my partner and I enjoyed, living in harmony with nature, before all this fear of homelessness came about. I can’t help but be emotionally overwhelmed at the very thought of being forced to live on the streets again, as I did for eight years before we moved here.
We have now had our home on the Albany Bulb for seven years and counting. This is my home address with the Registrar of Voters for Alameda County. For years, we were assured by Albany police that we “can stay here, as long as (we) want.” Well, let this be one of the few times in my life that I actually accept something offered to me by a cop.
Please join our growing community by visiting www.sharethebulb.org Watch our film on the website, and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, so you can stay in the loop about events here at the Bulb. Or, better yet, come visit the Albany Bulb. It’s located at 1 Buchanan Street Extension in Albany, California. Come see for yourself exactly what hundreds of park visitors (from preschool classes to college classes, and from day hikers to dog walkers) enjoy about this place, every day, year round.