by Amber Whitson
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Albany Bulb has been home to a population of otherwise homeless individuals for more than 20 years. I have been a resident of the Bulb for seven-plus years.
The City of Albany has had the land that we live on earmarked for incorporation into the state parks system for 30 years. However, as the City has never actually made any effort to “prepare” the land for the transfer (as is required), a community has formed on the Albany Bulb where people are free from the usual harassment that homeless people typically endure while living on the streets.
Virtually all of us who live on the Albany Landfill fit the HUD definition of “chronically homeless.” Some members of our community are terminally ill. Not a single one of us has an income that exceeds $1,200 per month. I am personally a recipient of SSI, based on various physical and mental disabilities.
Albany has never treated its homeless residents as if we had any rights. Indeed, with the exception of the occasions when one of the City’s attempts to displace us is being held at bay by civil rights lawyers, Albany prefers to act as if we don’t even exist. Recently, Albany officials have again decided to take action to displace us from our longtime homes.
City officials set up two trailers in the parking lot at the Albany Bulb and declared them to be the “Albany Temporary Transition Shelter,” in response to public outrage at the fact that Albany has no permanent homeless shelter and was about to evict 90 percent of its homeless population — with nowhere else for us to go except the next town over.
Albany officials had been repeatedly told, by numerous individuals and on multiple occasions, about the high percentage of disabled individuals living on the Albany Bulb. Many Bulb residents suffer from various, complicated mental and emotional issues, including PTSD, major depression, schizoid personality disorder and severe anxiety. Some of those same people, and others, suffer from Hepatitis C, HIV and other physical disabilities. Also, two residents of the Albany Bulb currently are pregnant.
Albany built the Temporary Shelter with the intention of pressuring residents of the Albany Bulb to move out of our homes on the Bulb and into the shelter.
Yet, the shelter was designed and constructed to be very much like an institution. As a result, many Bulb residents (who have experienced incarceration throughout their lives, instead of receiving the appropriate treatment that they each needed) feel that the shelter is a very threatening atmosphere. Also, there are no services at the shelter, whatsoever.
The shelter is staffed by an organization called Operation Dignity. Operation Dignity’s shelter staff have freely admitted that they are “not trained in anything” and this is evident in their incredibly offensive and hostile treatment of both actual and prospective clients.
I stopped by the shelter on the day that it opened and asked Alex McElree, the director of Operation Dignity, if the shelter was willing to accommodate the service animals of Bulb residents (as we have two certified service dogs currently living with their people on the Bulb). His answer was that there were four kennels in back for people’s dogs. When I mentioned that such an accommodation was required by the Fair Housing Act, his response was that the shelter was “close quarters” and would not be able to accommodate such a request.
In the same spirit, I knocked on the door to the shelter the following day and asked the shelter staff how one would go about filing a Request for Reasonable Accommodation to be able to stay at the shelter. The staff asked me what type of disability the requested accommodation would be for. I told them that people currently living on the Bulb have a range of disabilities. “For instance,” I said, “there are people out there with schizophrenia and claustrophobia. My boyfriend has schizoid personality disorder and cannot be forced into enclosed social situations.”
The shelter staff member responded, “Well, we don’t have a special box he could sleep in, or anything.” This is the absolute height of discrimination.
I am one of several longtime Bulb residents who was denied access at the door to the shelter based on the fact that our names weren’t on “the list” of Bulb residents. I am not aware of a single Bulb resident who has been allowed entry.
I am a disabled, homeless individual, who also receives Supplemental Security Income as a result of my disabilities. Albany opened its temporary homeless shelter supposedly for use by the population of primarily disabled homeless individuals whose camps it intends to demolish.
I submitted a Request for Reasonable Accommodations (RRA) with the assistance of a local advocacy organization, the East Bay Community Law Center, as did 31 other disabled individuals whose camps the City also plans to demolish.
All of our RRAs were denied, despite each one being accompanied by a Verification of Status as a Disabled Person, signed by a professional psychologist. The severity and truthfulness of every one of our disabilities was questioned. The necessity of our accommodations were also called into question, despite the fact that each of our Verifications included an explanation of why we each needed the requested accommodations.
I was personally denied not only non-communal living quarters (as is needed, due to my disability), but also the presence of my caretaker and my Emotional Support Animal (both of which my Verification stated that I need). I was also denied the right to receive the services of the shelter program at an alternate site that could accommodate my needs.
My request was denied, and the 31 other requests that were submitted at the same time also were all denied, without any effort or willingness on the part of the City of Albany to engage in an interactive process to try to work out some way that we could utilize the shelter.
For City officials to deny us access to the only shelter in Albany is devastating to some of us.
The Fair Housing Act specifically makes it unlawful to refuse to permit, at the expense of the handicapped person, reasonable modifications to existing premises to be occupied by such a person if such modifications are necessary to afford full enjoyment of the premises. The Act also makes it unlawful to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services to afford a handicapped person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling