There are no homeless shelters or services in the Bay Area city of Albany (pop. 18,500), and soon there will be a lot fewer homeless people.
The city council offered to pay 28 homeless people $3,000 each to pack up their belongings, some of which are substantial, and leave the Albany Bulb, a former landfill jutting out into the bay that some have called home for more than a decade. The homeless, who are probably headed to Richmond or Oakland, must stay away for a year.
The 31-acre Bulb has been a popular park and hiking destination for years since it ceased to be a landfill and dumping ground in the early 1980s. But it is strewn with concrete chunks, rebar, abandoned objects and scrap metal, not to mention an elaborate homeless encampment filled with striking art work and whimsical shantys.
The found objects have provided a small income for some of the scavenging residents who recycle stuff lying about, and been a source of materials for a group of guerrilla artists who have built interesting, if ephemeral, sculptures and murals in the dump. The Bulb was home to a makeshift library of 300-400 books built in 2006 by two residents. It burned in January.
Albany began its legal effort to evict the homeless folks from the Bulb last May. Years of discussions about whether to develop the land—there was talk of high-rise hotels and a marina—ended when it was decided to link up parts of it with the Eastshore State Park. The city started to enforce an ordinance that restricted camping on public property, but lawsuits blocked the effort.
The East Bay Community Law Center, the Homeless Action Center and a private law firm, Kilpatrick Townsend and Stockton, sued in November on behalf of Albany Housing Advocates and 10 homeless people who lived in the Bulb. The city offered to stick the homeless in temporary trailers near the park until the winter weather, which gets pretty rough there, passed. But the litigants sought something more substantial.
Kilpatrick Townsend lawyers pointed out that the city lacked “a single unit of low-income housing” much less any services for the no-income people. When the city began clearing out the 60 homeless residents and tearing down their homesteads, lawsuits were filed in state and federal courts. The federal lawsuit argued that Albany’s plan violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to due process under the 14th Amendment.
The settlement reached last week provides payments to 28 people, but another 25 or so people who aren’t part of the settlement also have to leave. Albany will also give the nonprofit Berkeley Food and Housing Project $60,000 to help the homeless find permanent shelter. The city will store personal property for 120 days that the homeless people can’t initially take with them.
“They were going to kick us out anyway, so I opted for the $3,000,” David Justus, a homeless person, told the Los Angeles Times.
Many of the people who live in the Bulb have mental and physical disabilities, evident in two movies made about the community. “Bums' Paradise,” a 2003 documentary, followed the residents through an earlier attempt to evict them. “Where Do You Go When It Rains?” is a 2013 documentary by a former Bulb resident and aspiring history teacher.
A few of the residents who didn’t take the money have vowed to remain. “My biggest fight right now is trying to save the art,” eight-year resident Amber Whitson told KQED News. “Once the last people that live here are gone, the art is going to get torn down, the castle, the sculptures, all of it.”
Osha Neumann, with the East Bay Community Law Center, lamented the lost opportunity to provide more permanent support for the homeless than just a lovely parting gift.
“What is sad,” he said, “is that when this case is done Albany will have destroyed a rare and admirable community of people society calls homeless. On the Bulb they had homes! Now many of them will be back on the street. I’m glad we got some of them bit of compensation. That’s more than they usually get when kicked out of town. But the fact that they’re getting kicked out of town is the problem. And that struggle isn’t over.”