by Lydia Gans
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t has now been almost a year since the Albany City Council decided to turn the Albany Bulb Waterfront Park over to the East Bay Regional Park District. The Albany Bulb, a former landfill, has been a source of controversy for many years. State parks do not permit overnight camping, off-leash dogs and works of art, all of which continue to happen in creative abundance on the Bulb.
Homeless people started to camp at the Albany Landfill more than 15 years ago. Ever since, they have been planting trees, clearing out debris, cutting trails, building shelters for themselves from salvaged materials, and establishing a community.
They all have little or no income and there are no homeless shelters, and practically no affordable or low income housing, and no medical or social services in Albany. Living on the Albany Bulb turns out to be a viable alternative.
Some want to be close to nature and to have access to the outdoors, while for others it is important to be part of a community. Some have medical or mental health issues and can’t find a housing situation that meets their needs. Several live with service or comfort animals and are forbidden to bring their companion animals with them into the shelters.
“I feel free here, I’m happy here,” a camper said recently. “I have been healthier since I came here six years ago,” another person asserted.
They are artists, musicians, carpenters and machinists. They build houses and plant gardens. And, as can be seen from the homes they built for themselves out of construction debris, scrap materials and items retrieved from dumpsters, they are superb scavengers.
Albany officials announced that the first step in carrying out the transfer to the East Bay Regional Park District would be to evict all the campers and dismantle the encampment. Not surprisingly, there were loud protests, both from the campers and from activist supporters in the community.
City officials then brought in Operation Dignity to set up trailers to provide temporary shelter for six months and Berkeley Food and Housing Project to help the campers find housing. After that, the campers would be on their own. The city would do nothing more to help them.
The whole thing was a crashing failure. Nobody stayed in the trailers, and practically nobody got housing. The campers were not moving, because there was nowhere for them to go.
Instead, they filed a civil rights lawsuit asking for a restraining order to prevent Albany from evicting the campers until the city found adequate shelter for them.
Meanwhile, the police put increasing pressure on them. A 10 p.m. curfew was imposed and citations were issued with threats of court actions. A camper reported being harassed in the middle of the night by a police officer. A policeman shot and killed another camper’s dog.
The campers’ appeals failed and ultimately they negotiated a settlement to take effect Friday, April 25. In the settlement, 30 people were offered $3000 each to cover relocation expenses. A total of 28 accepted, and two people refused as a matter of principle.
In accepting the money, they had to agree to stay away from the entire area — all of Albany city property west of the freeway — for the next 12 months. They cannot even come for a visit with friends.
City spokesperson Nicole Almaguer said that “the settlement agreement allows the City to continue assisting people, connecting them with human services and housing through the city’s service provider, Berkeley Food and Housing Project.”
It need hardly be said that $3000 can’t go very far for people with little or no income, since rents and living costs are so high throughout the Bay Area.
A few people finally found housing, but it is not clear how many campers were left out of the settlement and how many remain in the camp at the Albany Bulb. Everyone was required to move out by Friday, April 25, when the bulldozers came and began to demolish the houses and dump trucks hauled away whatever the people may have left behind.
But some people did not leave. They had nowhere to turn, and no home in sight. They had only what they could carry with them and no place to go. One camper felt terrible having to keep his cat confined to its carrier, another worried about how he would take care of his dog.
Being evicted from one’s home can be traumatic for anyone — even more so if they have built it themselves and now have to see it destroyed.
The house that Sharon and Luis built under a protecting tree with an upstairs bedroom that looks out through the branches on a spectacular view of the Bay — gone. Stephanie’s house that she spent more than a year building, and the carefully laid out garden guarded by pink flamingos — demolished. Jimbow’s free lending library and dozens more homes — smashed to pieces by the bulldozers, and all turned into rubble.
The Albany Bulb has evoked strong feelings. What is to happen on that little piece of land since it was created is controversial. There are those who feel that nobody has the right to occupy public lands, and others who had an unpleasant or frightening encounter with a camper’s dog, or simply disapprove of the campers’ lifestyle. On the other hand, many people appreciate the eco-consciousness of the campers, their reuse of discarded materials to construct their homes. Hikers and dog walkers have become friends with some of the campers.
Over the past few years, the campers have been gaining increasing support from people and organizations in the community. A weekly pizza was brought to the encampment from Solano Community Church, and sandwiches and juice were delivered by Food Not Bombs. Volunteers providing for medical needs or a ride to apply for social services are evidence of widening community support.
Several filmmakers have made documentaries about the Albany Bulb. A website, SHARE THE BULB, has been created to tell the story and solicit support.
Albany has been trying to turn the Bulb over to the state for many years and it appears to still be a long way from happening. The campers may have been officially evicted, but the dog walkers are resisting the prospect of losing a favorite place of recreation. And the art lovers declare that they are determined to protect the art works that mean so much to so many people.