Albany has taken another step in the long and agonizing process of turning the parkland at the end of Buchanan Street over to the East Bay Regional Park district (EBRPD). This includes the Bulb, a former landfill and a source of controversy for many years. State parks do not permit overnight camping, off leash dogs and works of art, all of which were, and still are, present on the Bulb.
More than 15 years ago homeless people started to camp there. Since then they have been planting trees, clearing out debris and cutting trails, building shelters for themselves from salvaged materials, and establishing a community. Most recently there were about 50 people living there. Some had been there for many years.
Last June the Albany city council decided to begin the process by evicting the campers and dismantling the encampment. Not surprisingly, there were loud protests. The city 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; practically nobody got housing. The campers were not moving, there was nowhere for them to go.
Campers filed a civil rights lawsuit asking for a restraining order to prevent Albany from evicting them until the city found them adequate shelter. Meanwhile the police put increasing pressure on them. A 10 P.M. curfew was imposed and citations issued with threats of court actions. Their appeals failed and ultimately they negotiated a settlement to take effect Friday, April 25.
In the settlement thirty people were offered $3000 each. 28 accepted, 2 refused as a matter of principle. The 28 had to be out of the camp by Friday April 27. Their homes were immediately demolished. Furthermore, for the next 12 months they will have to stay away from the entire area, basically all of Albany city property west of the freeway, for the next twelve months. They cannot even come for a visit with friends.
According to Albany city spokesperson Nicole Almaguer “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.” Albany has no homeless shelter and virtually no low income or affordable housing nor does it have any kind of human services. The city depends on Berkeley for medical and mental health and other social services. A few people have been housed but it is not clear how many people were left out of the settlement.
This settlement is far from a happy conclusion. The $3000 can't go very far for people with little or no income, rents and living costs being what they are in the Bay Area. Zuber, a camper who has lived there for several years, was getting the $3000 but declared, “The only reason I'm taking the money is that they're kicking us out...I was happy here."
He might try to buy something like a camper that he can live in if he can afford one. A long time camper, Ron, who received no settlement was moving about his camp on that last Friday, looking traumatized, not knowing where he would go.
The Bulb has long evoked strong feelings. There are those who feel that nobody has the right to occupy public lands, or who had an unpleasant or frightening encounter with a camper's dog, or simply disapprove of the camper's life style. On the other hand many people walking through the camp admire the homes the campers have built for themselves reusing only construction debris and discarded materials that that they have salvaged.
Over the years the campers have had support from people and organizations in the community:a weekly pizza brought from Solano Community Church, sandwiches from Food Not Bombs, volunteers providing for occasional medical needs or a ride to some needed services. Several film makers have made documentaries about the Bulb. More recently the website SHARE THE BULB was created to publicize and solicit support for the campers.
The process of turning over this part of Albany to the park district started many years ago and will still take a long time to actually happen. The campers may have been officially evicted and 50 parking spaces at the entrance to the area taken away but the dog walkers are resisting losing their pleasant source of recreation. And the art lovers declare they are determined to protect the art works that mean so much to so many people.