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Dozens in Albany homeless encampment prepare for clearout

On the west side of the city of Albany, there’s a peninsula jutting into San Francisco Bay. It’s beautiful there, right on the water, with hiking trails and beaches looking directly out toward the Golden Gate Bridge. On that piece of land, there’s a broad hilly mound covered in brush, grass, trees, scattered concrete slabs, and rebar that’s come to be known as the Albany Bulb.

For more than a decade, people have been living illegally on the Bulb – as many as 60 at latest count. Some live in tents, others have built treehouses or wood-and-tarp structures on stone platforms. Until now, the city has done little about it.

Longtime resident Katherine Cody says they’re a community that supports one another.

“Out here, if I yell for help, somebody’s going to come, because my neighbors care,” says Cody, “they do, and they’re going to come.”

Pat Moore has lived on the Albany Bulb for three years.

“I love it,” he says. “It’s in my element. I got the opportunity to build my camp, where I live, my home, from the ground up, you know. And when I got there, there was a bunch of grown-over weeds and trash and scrap metal, and I cleaned it up and built a nice little camp for me and my three dogs.”

Some of the camps set up in the grass or under the trees look orderly. Others are more slapdash. There’s also one mark of civilization not commonly associated with camping: a wooden shed lined with books – the community library.

The makeshift neighborhood seems to be just part of the landscape for the handful of hikers and dog owners visiting the Bulb on a sunny weekday morning – people like Maya Bush, who came here from West Oakland to let her dog run on the beach.

“You know,” she says, “it’s nice to have a place where you can go and be left alone, and that’s why the people are living here, and that’s why I come here to walk my dog.”

However, some people don’t come out to the Bulb anymore, because of garbage underfoot, drug use, or neighborhood dogs that can go unchecked and be intimidating.

And, according to city plans, nobody should be living here at all. It’s supposed to be public parkland.

The Council’s decision

In September, park advocates and Bulb settlers spoke to the City Council about their opposing visions for the land. One of the speakers was Robert Cheasty, President of Citizens for Eastshore Parks.

“Camping, building structures, dwelling out there, living without plumbing – all of those things that are happening out on the Bulb violate approximately 14 laws that we deal with,” Cheasty said. “And it also breaks faith with the hundreds of thousands of people that have worked to create the Eastshore State Park by allowing certain people to privatize.”

Albany resident Kristin Kilian-Lobos spoke about the danger of ignoring the use of drugs on the Bulb.

“I have to tell you how unsafe my daughter and I feel,” she told the council. “A few years back, my beautiful, precious teenaged daughter became severely addicted to methamphetamine, and she spent some time on the Bulb.”

But others testified to the community there. In fact about 40 Bulb residents and supporters had marched up to City Hall from the Bulb that day. They outnumbered park advocates as they told the council that the campers had nowhere else to go and urged the city to let them stay – or at least stay longer, while they look for housing elsewhere.

Bulb dweller Steve Courie said even with public assistance, it’s nearly impossible to find affordable housing in safe neighborhoods.

“And I’ll tell you what,” he said. “SSI, it’s great to have a little bit of money; it’s enough to live on, but it’s not enough to live on in some place.”

In the end, the Council voted to go forward with the planned eviction, clearing the land for the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park. It also decided to extend its contract for homeless services with the non-profit Berkeley Food and Housing Project through December.

Preparing for eviction

The city and the Food and Housing Project organized a services fair at the foot of the Bulb in early October, to help residents start finding their way to homes. The event took place in the parking lot of Golden Gate Fields racetrack. There weren’t any horses running, but there were about a dozen tables set up with a variety of offerings: pizza and bottled water; jackets and hats; flyers and condoms.

Carmen Francois of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project handed out clothes and toothbrushes. Munching on a slice of pizza, a homeless man named Dan Paul stepped up for a new jacket.

Paul has lived on the Bulb full-time for about two years. Besides the clothing, he could ask for more long-term aid at the event, like help signing up for MediCal or looking for a place to rent. Since June the Food and Housing Project’s social workers have been talking with Bulb residents about the kinds of help they want and where to get it. But before this Fair, Paul he hadn’t seen the social workers.

“They haven’t talked with me,” he said, “and in fact all of the efforts that have been to our benefit have been facilitated by ourselves.”

When the police start to enforce the camping ban, he doesn’t plan to go without a fight.

“I’ll probably have to be leaving in an ambulance,” he said. “I’m not interested in going anywhere.”

He won’t have a choice, according to Albany spokesperson Nicole Almaguer.

“Our Police Department is allowed and instructed now by our city council to enforce park rules,” says Almaguer. “And by ‘park rules,’ that means anything from no alcohol to no camping to no storage of personal property to no campfires.”

The city posted warnings in late October that structures found abandoned on the Bulb may be dismantled at any time. However, Almaguer said that the camping ban will not be strictly enforced until the city’s temporary shelter is ready the week of November 18th.

Those shelters are two trailers that look like mobile classrooms. They went up at the foot of the Bulb in early November. Each trailer will sleep 15 people. The city will also provide a kennel for campers’ dogs, showers, and some storage space.

Bulb resident Amber Whitson says the shelter plan falls short.

“They’re going to have 30 beds in their shelter; they know that there’s between 60 and 70 people out here,” says Whitson. “And that leaves the other 30-something I guess, uh, ‘Overflow population. Sorry, we can’t do anything for you in Albany. If you’re homeless here, you’ve got to get a ticket, and go to jail, or leave town.’ ”

Whether or not that’s the case, Whitson does not plan to move into the trailer.

“Change is hard, and I’ve really heard the things that people have said, on the Internet and in public statements, about they have a community here,” says Terrie Light, Executive Director of the Berkeley Food and Housing Project. “And having worked with a lot of people who’ve lived outdoors for a long time, and then to move indoors and away from people you know – it’s not easy.”

Light says she wants to sustain the Bulb campers’ sense of community. So over the next few months, her staff will continue to work with Bulb residents, in or out of the shelter, to find available rentals.

They’re also arranging for California I.D. cards and medical benefits or Social Security. Light says there was a lot of interest in finding units, but by early October, only one person was housed.

Last days on the Bulb

Katherine Cody, who goes by “KC,” is one of the many people who don’t have housing set up. She’s been at the Bulb more than three years, cooking communal meals on a propane stove and other equipment pulled from dumpsters. Campers who can’t contribute money for food haul water or take out the trash instead.

KC says that about a year-and-a-half ago, the number of people at the Bulb started growing, because of crackdowns on other camps in El Cerrito, Richmond, and Berkeley.

“They broke up camps that were longstanding, like at Central and the freeway, under the bridge there, and down by the Seabreeze motel, and they told, basically told people come here,” says KC. “They throw people out of People’s Park and tell them to come here.”

KC thinks it’s created some problems.

“Thieving has gone up, stealing and taking people’s water, just petty stuff like that, and I don’t know, there’s more alcohol than there was before,” KC says. “I’m sober now 15 years, and it gets to be a struggle staying sober if the people around you aren’t sober.”

Soon, KC and the other people in her community will be forced to leave. They’ll have new struggles to find safe places to live in the Bay Area, where it’s hard for even middle-class wage-earners to find a decent rental.

Is the City of Albany doing enough as it transitions the space from makeshift neighborhood to open parkland? Many of the residents here don’t think so. But are they doing enough for themselves, and using the resources being provided for them?

The only sure thing is that the picturesque peninsula known as the Albany Bulb will look different as winter sets in.

For more information about the Bulb and the non-profits working with homeless people in Albany, see the links below:

Berkeley Food and Housing Project           

Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency

The Suitcase Clinic                                   

Albany Patch stories