by Lydia Gans
[dropcap]H[/dropcap]idden away from Albany’s streets, separated from the city by the freeway, is an area where nature and people have been allowed to flourish for years. The Albany Waterfront Trail leads off from the end of Buchanan Street over an area aptly named the Plateau, along a narrow Neck and ending on the Albany Bulb, a bulb-shaped landfill that was created from construction debris and landscaping materials.
The Albany Bulb lies at the heart of this story. Back in the 1990s, people who were homeless created an encampment on the Plateau and the Bulb. Then, in 1999, Albany city officials noticed them and proceeded to clear the area.
They ordered police to raid the encampment, dismantled all the tents and shacks, and evicted the campers. City officials paid a nonprofit agency to set up a temporary shelter in a couple of trailers, but did nothing to provide permanent housing for the people made homeless.
Albany officials brought in bulldozers and heavy equipment and tore down broad swaths of the vegetation and dumpstered all the campers’ belongings.
After this mass eviction, the police patrolled the area from time to time, but soon everything went back to normal. Homeless people returned and settled on the Bulb, for they had nowhere else to go in a city that has refused to build housing or shelters for their homeless citizens for the last 20 years. People continued to walk their dogs and enjoy the art created by the campers and their friends.
Now it’s all happening again, this time on a much broader scale. In the summer of 2013, Albany began the process of transferring the entire area to East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). Signs were posted listing rules and regulations for what is now Albany Waterfront Park.
All the wild vegetation on the Plateau has been removed, presumably to be replaced by something appropriate, though in view of the drought conditions, who knows when it will become green again. The upper trail to the Bulb is being widened for service vehicles, bushes are being chopped down and limbs cut off trees along the way.
And the people who are living on the Bulb have been warned that they will be evicted. Camping is not allowed in state parks. The homes they have built for themselves are being demolished.
The City contracted with Operation Dignity to provide temporary shelter for six months. City officials offered nothing beyond that, even though Albany has no homeless shelter and no housing for very low-income people. There will be nowhere for the evicted campers to go.
“It’s illegal to be homeless in Albany,” longtime camper and spokesperson Amber Whitson comments wryly. “It’s the leaf blower effect. Blowing problems onto somebody else’s sidewalk.”
Whitson points out that there are serious issues concerning the City of Albany’s failure to comply with the housing element, the law requiring a city “to meet its share of the demand for market rate and affordable housing in the region.” Housing advocates have filed suit against Albany officials to demand compliance.
Lawyers for the campers filed a second lawsuit asserting that the shelter violates the Americans with Disabilities Act which requires accessibility for people with disabilities. That litigation is still going on.
City officials brought in the Berkeley Food and Housing Project (BFHP) to help the campers find housing and connect with social and community services. They call the program “Outreach and Engagement.” That program is proving to be a dismal failure. And all this has already cost the city well over $250,000.
The shelter consists of two trailers, toilets, showers, dog kennel and a structure housing a generator, and is set up at the entrance to the parking lot. The trailers are a travesty, with no privacy, with rules and protocols more like a detention facility. The shelters are only open at night, and are closed throughout the entire day.
“They’re horrendously abusive there,” Amber Whitson says.
In reporting on this story, I tried three different times to speak with the shelter managers, but they refused to speak to me. Instead, I was told to talk to city officials.
It is hardly surprising that generally only two or three people have been staying in the trailers, often none at all. And even some of the very few who have stayed in the trailers are not Bulb residents, but are from the city streets.
People are not even permitted to bring food into the shelter. Kim, a young woman who has special dietary restrictions, managed to bring in what she needed, but was forced to hide in a dark corner to have her meal.
Two men were banned from the shelter after urinating in a garbage can. One can hardly blame them. Anyone needing to go to the toilet has to be escorted by the manager who unlocks the door and waits until the person is ready to be escorted back in.
People admitted to the shelter are screened. Their names must be on a list of residents provided by BFHP or, if they are from the streets, they need referrals from the city. Whitson, certainly well known to the shelter operators, was greatly surprised to be told she couldn’t be admitted to the shelter because her name is not on the list.
Their failure to even maintain an adequate list of Bulb residents is only a minor example of the inefficiency and generally poor performance of BFHP.
Their program is described as a “mobile outreach team” to connect with the people on the Bulb and to “develop housing plans and provide housing locations and placement.” It also includes “providing information on all available safety-net services provided by BFHP and other community organizations.”
In all these months, they have successfully housed only four people. Two others were provided housing that they found so unlivable, dark and cramped, that they moved back to the Bulb.
Attorney Osha Neumann expressed considerable disappointment with BFHP. He said, “They never delivered services in a way that’s actually designed to help people with disabilities. They’ve simply written off all those people who don’t have an income. They blame people out here for their failure to find housing for them. They’ve given all kinds of reasons why they failed — difficulty finding housing for people with dogs, or they don’t have income.
“When I talked to people out here, person after person tells me that they approached the Food and Housing Project and said they wanted to go into housing and they never got a response. Some cases, they were simply told because they don’t have an income they can’t be helped. Some cases, they were told because they have dogs they can’t be helped. Some cases, they weren’t told anything, just never got a response back.”
Neumann has spent a great deal of time at the Albany Bulb creating art, and he is on the team of attorneys representing Bulb residents in their lawsuit against the City of Albany. In his dual roles, he spends a lot of time building relationships with the people living at the Albany landfill — and that is a major element that is missing in BFHP’s work at the Bulb.
“It takes real work with people, building trust, meeting them where they’re at, literally, physically where they’re at, going to their shelters and sitting down with them,” Neumann says. “It takes ingenuity coming up with solutions. It takes a willingness to go an extra mile which is needed for people who’ve been chronically homeless for many years. They haven’t done that. They’ve gone through the motions, waited for people to come to them, rather than going out to where they’re at. And when people have come to them, they’ve very often dropped the ball.”
As for information and help accessing services, the BFHP has done little or nothing. On the other hand, much support has come from the community.
Whitson reports that “Share the Bulb, East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), and Homeless Action Center (HAC) have formed an ad hoc coalition, along with various community members that got a little over a dozen Bulb residents benefits, food stamps and/or GA. They got them started on the process of getting disability benefits in a couple of days over three weeks. And BFHP has not gotten a single person, not even those they housed, anything. HAC and EBCLC, the two organizations that are suing the city, are the ones helping. BFHP never even referred people to them.
“And people from the community came out and helped people fill out the GA and food stamp applications with people living on the Bulb. And several people came out here and drove people to the Social Security office, sat with them and waited to bring them back. People who heard about it from the community, who heard about it through the coalition.”
The City of Albany has not yet succeeded with these plans for a mass eviction, but harassment of the campers intensifies. A 10 p.m. curfew was established with citations being issued for violations, and people found to have police records are being arrested.
A police officer shot and killed a camper’s dog, claiming the animal threatened him. Now the city has announced that the eviction will proceed. But the campers have not exhausted legal appeals. Community support for the campers is growing. Will the good citizens of Albany consent to their city officials putting 50 people out on the streets of a city with utterly no shelter or housing for the poor?