Albany Evictions--and Resistance (News Analysis)

By Lydia Gans
Friday November 29, 2013 - 10:27:00 PM

Albany's threatened eviction of the campers from the Albany Bulb is moving on full steam but resistance of the campers and their many allies is proving equally determined. They invited the public to two days of music, food and conversation and, as a special feature, an Art Walk. The art includes paintings and exotic constructions that were created over the years from materials found at the site. Some are old works that have faded and deteriorated from exposure to the elements which the campers have been working to restore. The fate of the art works is yet to be determined. They too, are threatened with 'eviction.' 

Now for the ugly news. As a first step in the eviction process the city contracted Operation Dignity to set up a Temporary Transition Shelter to house the campers for six months. No further accommodations for homeless people will be provided by the city of Albany after that. Berkeley Food and Housing Project is still under contract to provide services and help find housing but there virtually no possibility that more than a handful of the people will actually be housed. 

The shelter consists of two trailers set up along the road at the entrance to the parking lot. They are box-like affairs about 20' x 40', one for men with 22 beds, the other for women with 8 beds and dining facilities. Outside, facing the driveway, there are 4 toilets, 2 each for men and women, shower structures behind them, and 4 large cages to serve as kennels for the dogs. Behind the kennels an enclosure houses the generator. The population slated to be evicted includes 35 men and 8 women. There are 25 dogs including 2 service dogs and a number that serve as emotional support dogs. 

The trailers were opened up Friday night October 22 and a notice listing hours and rules was briefly posted on the door. They are closed from 8:30 A.M until 5:30 P.M. Campers signing in before 6:30 have priority, after that, the notice says, “available beds will be provided to others who are homeless in Albany”. It is worth noting that this is the first time that the city of Albany is providing any shelters for its homeless people. People must be in the shelter no later than 8 P.M., lights out at 10. Showers available 8:30 P.M. to 9:30 P.M. People can bring only a small bag of personal possessions into the trailers. There is an outside storage area but it is not clear how much space would be available. 

Not surprisingly, the trailers have had few if any occupants. For the campers, people who choose to live with nature, who value the freedom to lead their lives how and with whom they choose, living in the trailers is clearly unacceptable. In the words of attorney Osha Neumann, “People have certain rights, like the right to privacy, to live with people they want and not with people they don't want.” Long time camper Amber Whitson points with some outrage at the posted rule “Proper attire is required at all times.... definition (of what is proper) is at the discretion of the program staff.” Reacting to the warning “no visitors are allowed on the premises” a camper commented “even in jail people can have visitors.” 

As far as the campers are concerned the Bulb is their home and they continue to take care of it. They are holding planning meetings and reaching out to the people in the community. Amber Whitson says “We're trying to get organized as fast as we can to be able to defend ourselves as this place is – as a liberated zone, a place … for freedom, not free do so whatever you want but a place where you should be free to do things that do no harm, things that help. ..” 

They are engaging in new projects. Whitson has managed to salvage the necessary components to construct a composting toilet, something she has been planning to do for a long time. And public events like the Art Walk, movies and discussions are engaging community interest and support. 

As for legal issues, while the attempt to prevent the eviction was denied there is still the issue of accessibility for handicapped persons. It is not clear what, if any, other legal means can be taken to prevent the eviction, or for that matter to provide a safe location for the campers when the six months are up and homelessness becomes a crime in Albany. 

There have been parallel situations elsewhere and encampments that have survived. A 2010 report by the National Coalition for the Homeless entitled Tent Cities in America describes a number of homeless encampments on the West Coast. They all started more or less like the Bulb with a group of homeless people settling on a piece of public land. They would be met with strenuous opposition from city governments and harassment by police. Those that survived managed to win public support and some level of sponsorship by churches or non profit organizations and ultimately were able, under specific conditions, to be granted secure access to a piece of public land.