By Alex Emslie
An encampment of about 60 people on a bulbous peninsula jutting into the East Bay could be evicted in October as the city of Albany moves to turn the old landfill into part of the surrounding state park.
Park advocates say incorporating the Albany Bulb into the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park has been a nearly 30-year effort, beginning in the mid-1980s when the city stopped dumping concrete, steel and other construction materials into the Bay. Shortly after that, homeless people started living on the bulging peninsula, building a village hidden in the California native brush that also claimed the artificial piece of land.
“Apart from the incredible loss to the people who are living there and the threat to them and the fact that they’re going to lose their home, what all of us are going to lose is that model of coexistence, of an ecology that includes humanity in it,” said Osha Neumann, an East Bay attorney who has represented some of the Bulb residents. He doesn’t want the city to clear the camp without making sure the homeless have somewhere else to go.
The camp’s population has ebbed and flowed over the years. It reached a high point of around 60 in the late 1990s, and Albany enacted a no-camping ordinance and evicted the Bulb residents in 1999.
But the Bulb remained stubbornly independent. Concerns about landfill tainted drainage, or leachate, stalled the transfer. The park advocacy group Citizens for East Shore Parks proved the clean construction material dump wasn’t leaking toxic liquid, but Albany stopped enforcing the no-camping ordinance. Tents and shacks again sprouted in the bushes.
“This situation is not going to get better – it’s only going to get worse,” said Robert Cheasty, president of Citizens for East Shore Parks, an umbrella organization pushing for the eviction and state park stewardship of the Bulb. “Whatever problems that we as a society have, and we have plenty of them, we can’t require that we solve all problems in our society before we have a park. It just doesn’t work that way. We have a shoreline park. No one’s allowed to privatize it.”
It’s inaccurate to call the people who live on the Bulb homeless. Some claim to have lived there for more than 10 years, and the ones who say they’ve been there five or seven years consider the Bulb their home. Many say police found them sleeping on the street in Albany or Berkeley and encouraged them to move to the camp, but the cities dispute that ever happens.
Albany contracted a Berkeley nonprofit for $60,000 – or about $1,000 per camp resident – to connect the people on the Bulb with services and, hopefully, housing. The campers say they’ve talked to the outreach workers, but the ones with a little income from social security or other sources worry they won’t be able to afford a place to live that is at least as safe as the camp.
That’s Steve Courie’s situation. The 63-year-old blues musician says he’s getting too old to camp and he’s too tired for a political fight. But he marched to the Albany City Council meeting on Sept. 3 with about 20 other Bulb residents anyway, hoping to convince council members to reverse their October eviction plan.
“If we lose this, the ones that don’t make it into a house or whatever are going to end up sleeping in business doorways and stuff like that,” Courie said. “It’s not a pretty picture.”
The council voted 4-1 to have police begin enforcement of the no-camping ordinance sometime in October. Council members agree with Cheasty, saying letting the camp continue will only make the problem worse. Some Albany residents say they’re afraid to go to the Bulb with the camp there.
“I’m actually one of those people who used to go down there,” said Patricia Jones, executive director of Citizens for East Shore Parks. “I’m not a very scary person, but I wouldn’t go down there alone right now. We’re really looking for this to be a positive change – that these people will be helped and that the park will be returned to the rest of the people.”
Neumann doesn’t think Albany’s few month, $60,000 effort will really house anybody, and the Bulb campers will be kicked to the streets in October.
“They don’t have a shelter, they don’t have a transitional house, they don’t have a single unit of low-income subsidized housing,” he said. “It’s taken years to create this situation. You can’t unravel it in three or six months at the beginning of winter, and they know that. And they don’t care.”
Housing in Albany is an additional layer to the controversy. The city is overdue in submitting an acceptable housing element of its general plan to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. The housing element should cover 2009-2014.
State law now requires jurisdictions to have at least one zone allowing emergency shelters without a conditional use permit, and Albany’s current zoning only allows for conditional use. That means a prospective emergency shelter would have to go through an additional approval process, which is forbidden by state law.
Albany could contract with a neighboring city to fulfill its obligation. City officials say they are working on the plan. The city’s planning and zoning commission has scheduled a work session for the housing element of its general plan for Sept. 25 at 6:30 p.m.
A version of this story was published and broadcast by KQED on Sept. 24, 2013.