After 14 years the Albany Bulb is in the news again. The Albany City Council has voted to begin the process of transferring the Bulb over to California State Park system. It will be a long and complicated process involving the Park system and East Bay Regional Park administrations as well as numerous other interested parties. And it will involve the difficult and painful issue of providing for some 55 people who have long been camped there and will be made homeless. They set October as a time to begin evictions. At Monday's Council meeting they voted for a $30,000 contract with Berkeley Food and Housing Project for a Homeless Outreach and Engagement Program to connect with the campers.
The Bulb is a landfill created from rebar, concrete building materials and landscaping material. It belongs to the city of Albany but over the years appears to have been more of a problem than an asset.
In 1985 the city signed a lease agreement with state parks but nothing ever came of it. There are specific rules for state parks. Camping is not permitted, any structures or art works are not permitted nor are off leash dogs. In the 1990's homeless people began moving into the Bulb. They set up tents and built simple structures, artists constructed fantastic art works from scrap materials and one long time camper set up a lending library in his shack. Before the state can take over everything will have to be removed. The removal of the rebar, concrete and other solid waste is also an issue. The campers, too, have to be permanently banned.
In 1999 the city tried. It was a disaster. They ordered the campers to move out. Campsites were bulldozed. Attorney Osha Neumann came to the defense of the campers pointing out to the city that they cannot evict them without providing shelter. And Albany had – and still has – no homeless shelters. (Sending them to Berkeley was not an acceptable alternative.) The city contracted with an agency, Operation Dignity which brought in in a trailer to provide temporary shelter but promises to find permanent housing went unfulfilled. (An aside: Neumann also created some of the fantastic works of art.)
The Bulb was soon reoccupied. Word was out and homeless folk, wanderers and people just looking to party drifted in and out. But a core of people made it their home. The city appeared to have neither the will nor the resources to take any interest. Occasionally the police patrolled but more often they actually told homeless people they encountered in the city streets to go out to the Bulb.
Amber Whitson has lived at the Bulb since 2006. She talked about Bulb residents' accomplishments and contributions since they moved there (or) were told to move there by the police. “Wider site trails have been created, we've been doing maintenance on them, we do trash pickup. We've done cleanup of abandoned camps, shoreline cleanup – in 2007 people who lived out here helped take care of oiled birds during the Cosco Busan oil spill. We've done metal and re-bar hazard mitigation, we were the first to respond to the fire in the castle set by kids from the town, we created a freebox out here, we arranged for pickup of the shopping carts ourselves without help from the city, we planted fruit trees out here, we built and do our best to maintain the castle which was finished in '99 and the library both of which are not only local treasures but are also major tourist attractions. In '99 the day before the threatened eviction date one of the people who lived out here rescued a guy out of the water and out of the 4 people who showed up for the cove enhancement volunteers work that the city is doing, 3 of the 4 were people from out here, only one person was a resident of the city of Albany. We jump when they want us to jump, we reach out and help.”
In spite of all this city officials apparently have not seen fit to communicate directly with the campers. Nor is it clear what consideration, if any, they are giving to a very extensive report from the Homeless Task Force, “Options for Ending Homelessness in Albany”. Several of the campers representing the homeless community regularly attend and participate in Task Force meetings and have high praise for the Task Force members and their work. Various agencies and friends have been supporting the campers for some time. Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless comes out regularly, Homeless Action Center helps people apply for benefits they might be eligible for, East Bay Community Law Center offers help, some folks from a local church bring pizza once a week, others bring food or help haul in water.
The campers themselves are organizing, getting together from time to time for community meetings and to work on maintenance and improvements on the Bulb. They are concerned about metal scavengers and outsiders who come just to party and have on occasion set fires or done serious damage. They are hoping to smooth out the road where there is rebar and concrete jutting out. And they are trying to keep informed on the action the city will take affecting them.
To prepare for questions from agencies or interested parties Amber has carried out a needs assessment and demographic survey of the 55 campers for whom the Bulb is home. She cites some numbers: 21 people have been homeless for a year or more, 23 are disabled, at least 13 want a job, 34 “actively interested in housing”, 21 with pets, 25 have an income, 21 no income at all. These are all factors affecting their needs and potential for obtaining appropriate housing for the people who will be displaced from their current residence at the Bulb.
Though the City Council has announced an October date for enforcing the no camping rule, it is clear that actually making it happen is not possible. Osha Neumann points out that “(I)t has taken many years to bring about this situation and it's not going to get resolved over night. And they will not find placements for the people there all at once.”
He also suggests that “Apart from constitutional issues I think there are people who are concerned on a human level with what is going to happen to people. They have some level of responsibility. They permitted and in some cases encouraged people to go out there. So now all of a sudden to close it down is not fair, not the right thing to do. I think people care.”