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Albany Bulb Sweep Averted

By Lydia Gans, Special to the Planet
Friday October 05, 2007

There’s a new sign posted at the Albany Waterfront Park announcing an “Albany Bulb Clean-up Project” beginning Monday, Sept. 24, and going on for two weeks. It warns that “heavy equipment” will be used but assures that the “cleanup will not have a permanent impact on the Albany Bulb’s landscape or usability.” That is meant to be reassuring. On past occasions when bulldozers were used they tore up wide swaths of lush vegetation. Robert Barringer, who called the Bulb home for years, recalled how “they took down a lot of trees and shrubs and they laid them out like corpses.” As for impact on “usabilty,” that’s a very big question.  

To numerous dog lovers the Bulb is a place to let their dogs run free, to artists it’s a place to let their creativity expand, for the urban ecologists it’s a place to plant and nurture a tree, for youngsters it’s a place to skateboard—oops, the folks in City Hall didn’t know somebody built a skateboard ramp there a couple of months ago—and for a handful of people who, by choice or necessity, have no other homes, it’s a place to live—to be free and to be safe. Will this cleanup truly not affect any of these people and others who use the Bulb? Not likely.  

On Friday police went through the park telling campers that they would have to leave. Even if they had broken the news gently, it must have been pretty traumatic for people with no place to go. “They came carrying guns ... with a really bad attitude,” according to K.C., a homeless woman who has been there with her dog for over a year. Some of the campers began packing up their belongings. They talked about possible places where they could safely stay other than city streets and doorways. They called on Osha Neumann, one of the Bulb artists and also a lawyer who has defended many poor and homeless people.  

Neumann immediately wrote a letter to a number of city officials, including the mayor, city administrator and city attorney, pointing out that “this eviction is not only inhuman, it is illegal. Enforcing Albany’s camping ordinance against the homeless when there are no shelter beds available constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.” The city of Albany has no homeless shelters. Neumann cited a number of precedents supporting his allegations.  

On Monday the clean-up began. East Bay Conservation Corps crews rolled in to remove garbage and debris from abandoned campsites. The campers didn’t know when the ax would fall, or that only abandoned campsites were being cleared. They didn’t dare go far away. K.C. made coffee as she always does for whoever came by her campsite. Folks were angry, scared. Watching a pelican soaring and swooping, flying free, people wondered where the world had a place for them.  

K.C. used to breed and train service dogs for people with disabilities. She became homeless when the building she was living in was sold from under her. She has been happy living on the Bulb. When she first became homeless, she says, “For the first time I was really scared.” Instead she found herself welcomed, she felt cared for without losing her independence. If she’s evicted from the Bulb she has no place to go. Shelters will not allow dogs, and she doesn’t have the means to get into regular housing: “Once you’re out here, you’re stuck.”  

Pelican and his partner Berkeley are in their twenties, idealistic, and living on the Bulb by choice, “because it’s beautiful.” Rather than working at a routine job, Pelican wants to “live free and give to the community.” Berkeley shares his vision of the Bulb as a place for “renewal.” She points to the polluted air and water, raging traffic in the distance and Chevron across the bay and talks about working to recreate a welcoming environment for future generations. Together with campers and friends in the community they are cleaning up, planting trees and composting.  

Meanwhile, Albany city officials, having been informed that they can’t simply evict the campers, have been trying to figure out what to do. Reached by phone Monday afternoon, Assistant City Attorney Judy Lieberman explained that the usual procedures after informing people that they’re not allowed to camp, is to go out with Berkeley mental health workers and talk to the people about options and services available. Berkeley and Albany have a joint mental-health district, she explained, which seems to justify their sending homeless people to Berkeley, but it’s not clear what mental health can do for people who need a place to live. She acknowledged that Berkeley doesn’t have enough shelter beds.  

Asked what the city was doing after having told people they must leave without offering any alternative, she insisted that they were not rousting people. “We are not rousting anyone, but kind of standing by.” She quoted what she described as the official police statement, that they are “not taking enforcement posture.” At the suggestion that it would be kind to let people know that they had at least a temporary reprieve, she admitted, “Maybe I will talk to our maintenance crew and see ... if we can convey the message.”  

Albany Mayor Robert Lieber, also contacted on Monday afternoon, was equally vague. He confirmed that Berkeley mental health would be called in to counsel the campers. At this point, he said nobody was being moved. He was asked if the people were now no longer being told they have to leave. Reminded that a few days ago they were told to leave, he replied that “we were going to do that today, but as far as I know that actually hasn’t taken place.”  

Asked if there were plans to make it happen, he conceded, “I think we will. It’s a huge  

problem,” and he alluded to “what happened at Golden Gate Park.”  

Admittedly there are fewer than ten people involved here, but there are countless homeless people on the streets of Berkeley and El Cerrito. Was he worried they would all flock to the Bulb? He didn’t think so. The mayor did give assurances that the art would definitely not be destroyed. However, he considers the skateboard ramp a problem.  

One might be tempted to feel a little pity for the city of Albany. They’re stuck with this piece of land that didn’t even exist fifty years ago and they don’t have the money to manage it. They would like it to become part of the Eastshore State Park, which is part of the state park system. But again money is an issue.  

For the time being the eviction is on hold. Speaking to K.C. on Wednesday, she reported that the mental health people who came by on Tuesday afternoon were accompanied by police, so no one would speak to them. The clean-up operation has also stopped. The East Bay Conservation Corps crew were sent to an occupied campsite, she said, and refused to demolish it. She had high praise for the young people on the crew who “felt this was not right and wouldn’t do it.”  

Furthermore, she said, the contractors who were supplying the heavy equipment were backing off, apparently saying this was getting “too political.” With winter approaching and the city determined to evict them, the future of the Bulb campers is anything but secure.