Albany Bulb, a chunk of land at the end of Buchanan Street in Albany, has been in the news lately – though not the first time. It is a landfill that was created many years ago from construction debris and landscaping materials and has become a home for a collection of people who by necessity or by choice have no other home. People started camping there in the nineties, setting up tents and more solid structures, and artists created works of art from scrap materials. In 1999 the city sent in the police to evict the campers. However it was unable to enforce the stay-away because Albany had no shelters to house the homeless. The campers soon returned.
Over the years the city pretty much ignored the encampment providing no potable water nor any basic amenities. The campers policed themselves and took care of the land. This year the city finally had the opportunity to get the responsibility of the Bulb off its back. In June the Albany city council voted to turn the Bulb over to the California state park system as part of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). Camping is not permitted in state parks. In mid October all the campers would have to be evicted. About 60 people who have been living there would be made homeless.
Albany still has no homeless shelters. The city turned the problem over to Berkeley Food and Housing Project (BFHP), allotting $30,000 for a 'Homeless Outreach and Engagement Program within the City'. (It is to be noted that while the focus is on the campers on the Bulb, homeless people throughout the city are included.) The agreement calls for connecting with the individual campers, assessing their immediate and long term needs, and informing them of the various resources available in the community. As for housing, the program calls for helping people “develop plans” for finding permanent or short-term temporary housing. Nothing is said about actually housing or finding any kind of shelter for the people if they are evicted. Although BFHP has many sources and connections for finding affordable housing there is clearly no way they could be expected to find housing for more than 60 people, some are disabled, some have pets, about half have no income.
BFHP workers have been going out to the Bulb Tuesdays and Thursdays talking with the campers, connecting them with services and taking them to meet what might be a potential housing opportunity. By September, no one had been housed. At the September 3 meeting the council voted to renew the contract for another $30,000. Now, with little time left BFHP in a “final push” is talking with campers urging them to work out options such as reuniting with family or moving into some sort of transitional housing. The city of Albany however, has nothing to offer.
Meanwhile East Bay Regional Parks District (EBRPD) are exercising their control over the area leading up to the Bulb. For the first time there is a large sign EBRPD sign at the beginning of the parking lot. There is heavy equipment demolishing the lush vegetation on the Neck and the Plateau. A notice posted there explains that the EBRPD will be working there through October to clear the area and “establish coastal grassland”.
Pressure on the campers is increasing. There is a move to enforce 10 P.M. to 5 A.M. curfew which apparently is an ordinance covering all Park property. This unfairly affects the campers since the only access to the Bulb is through the area already under EBRPD control. Camper Amber Whitson reports that she was stopped coming home from the Target store after 10 o'clock one evening and warned that curfew violators could be taken to jail. It's not clear if others are being stopped or if the Park police are temporarily backing off.
But something else is happening. Along with publicity around the incorporation of the Bulb into the regional park system news of the threatened eviction of the campers spread rapidly. People who regularly walk their dogs and love the Bulb the way it is objected. They have been accepting the campers simply as part of the scene. When the City Council continued with its plans and extended the contract with BFHP campers and supporters held a protest march to the September 9th Council meeting. The press began to seriously pay attention.
Individuals and groups of people from different communities who are moved by the situation of the campers are getting together and engaging in supportive actions. There have been community discussions and showings of Andy Kraemer's film “Where Do You Go When It Rains”. Word is that another film maker is working on the story.
On Saturday morning September 21st a group from Solano Community Church and friends went up and down Solano Avenue making chalk drawings on the sidewalks promoting the campers' message “Share the Bulb”. That message is the title of the supporters' website sharethebulb.org (Unfortunately a sudden downpour quickly washed away the drawings.)
A film showing and conversation was held at a community center in Oakland. A sociology class at U.C. Berkeley will hold a panel discussion the topic. Saturday the 28th a Community Gathering to Defend the Albany Bulb, with pot luck supper and open mike followed by an 8 P.M. concert, will take place at the main entry.
The story is getting widespread attention from the press. The plight of the campers is touching peoples' sense of compassion. For the campers, the Bulb is their home, their community, their Village. They planted trees and continue to work hard at clearing away construction debris. They haul out their garbage and carry in their water with no help from the city. They built shelters for themselves to live in and to keep the necessities of daily living and their few personal treasures – more than can fit in a shopping cart if a person is made homeless.
Yet the city officials are not relenting in their determination to cast them out even though it would be a practical disaster as well as a moral outrage. So far practically nobody has been housed. Amber Whitson, longtime camper and activist on the Bulb reports that of the more than 60 campers 36 have no income at all which for them would mean a succession of temporary shelters or life on the streets. Even for those with some income, anything affordable is extremely hard to find and most likely to be small and dark and not necessarily safe.
All this doesn't have to happen, there are alternatives. It is good to remember Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well being … including food, clothing, housing ...”