A Place of Freedom Where the Sea Meets the Sky

People who could not find anywhere else to live, lived in this beautiful place. They had the solace of living in nature, and loved the landfill for its wildness, for the fact that it wasn’t controlled and tamed.

This remarkable sculpture was created by Osha Neumann and Jason DeAntonis at the Albany Bulb. Marianne Robinson photo

by Terry Messman

The horizons seem almost limitless as we walk along with Osha Neumann and Amber Whitson on an Art Tour to view the wildly colorful paintings and striking sculptures created in recent years at the Albany Landfill. As we look at the towering sculpture of a woman on the shoreline, her arms outstretched to the horizons, the sun slips down beyond the hills in the west, forming an inexpressibly lovely, rose-colored painting in the sky.

Art above and art below — beauty in the heavens and on earth. Yet, the beauty of the Albany Bulb stands in stark contrast to the ugly, destructive actions taken by the Albany City Council, along with their unexpected ally — anti-homeless environmentalists who may see the natural beauty of the landscape but have proven unwilling to see the beauty of the human lives and remarkable artworks that have found a home in the midst of the debris and concrete rubble of this dumping ground.

For many years, city officials tacitly permitted homeless people to live on the Albany Bulb, and the police often directed homeless people to live at the landfill because there was no other refuge for unhoused people in Albany. Now, after the utter refusal of Albany officials for the past 20 years to build a single emergency shelter or a single unit of housing for homeless people, and after Albany failed for 20 years to fulfill its state-mandated requirement to file a plan to build affordable housing, the City Council has decided that the only solution to homelessness is the mass eviction and forced exile of everyone living at the Albany Bulb.

During our Art Tour, as the sun goes down over the shoreline, the horizon where sea meets sky seems to go on forever. And if the expanse of the far-off horizon seems limitless, the imagination that created all these artistic works also seems unbounded and free.

Wind over water

Like wind playing over water, the human spirit has come to this shoreline and found a place of freedom — freedom to live, to create art, to build imaginative little shacks that provide a safe haven.

Poor people in this society are often imprisoned in claustrophobic little boxes. Residents at the Albany Bulb have found the freedom to escape the wretched SRO hotels, the dangerous neighborhoods and the claustrophobic warehouses called shelters that poor people are sentenced to live in, as though they were prisoners.

Here, at the Bulb, they live in imaginative little sanctuaries built by hand and blazing with art, instead of being consigned to shelters where scores of strangers are crammed into faceless barracks with no privacy, no dignity, no freedom, and with every second of life regulated.

But if the horizons and the physical freedom seem endless, they are not. The horizons have shrunk and our society is clamping down on freedom. The upper-middle-class politicians on the Albany City Council would prefer that there were no poor people. That is precisely why they have deliberately refused to build any housing or shelter for their homeless citizens for all these years.

Now that the poor have shown the capacity to develop their own homes, the council must invent new crimes and cast them all into exile. Suddenly, an area that was literally a dumping ground becomes such a valued piece of real estate that the poor must be driven out.

Festival of Resistance

Given the many years in which homeless people were permitted and even encouraged to take up residency at the landfill, Albany officials have given no credible explanation as to why they are acting with such haste to evict 50 to 60 homeless people as winter approaches.

In a show of support for the Bulb’s residents, a four-day Festival of Resistance was held over the Thanksgiving weekend.

On Friday, November 29, Osha Neumann, an artist and attorney, and Amber Whitson, a leading organizer of the Bulb community, led an Art Tour down a green avenue of flowers, paintings and sculpture created out of driftwood, construction debris, beached boats, and other found objects on the shoreline.

The profuse paintings, sculptures and colorful homes created by Albany Bulb residents were illuminated in the surreal glow of a sunset that almost seemed programmed from on high to showcase the artistic creativity of the landscape.

As sunset faded into cold twilight, this outdoor art exhibit of sculptures and creative shacks revealed its other identity as a place of shelter for homeless people with nowhere else to go.

Neumann is a mural artist and sculptor who created several of the most striking sculptures at the Albany Bulb, working with his son-in-law, Jason DeAntonis. Neumann also spends many hours at the Albany Bulb in his other role as an attorney who is representing homeless camp-dwellers in their lawsuit against city officials for proceeding with a mass expulsion that Neumann said is an act of “cruel and unusual punishment” in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

Creative artworks dot the landscape at the Albany Bulb. Painted chunks of construction debris sit near a towering sculpture by Osha Neumann and Jason DeAntonis. Robin Lasser photo

The discovery of freedom

In an interview, Neumann explained his connections to both the natural beauty of the Albany landfill and the homeless people who have found a home here. Just as homeless people have found a refuge that allows them to live in freedom in an over-regulated society, so have artists found the freedom to create unlicensed and unregulated works of art at the Bulb.

This level of personal and artistic freedom is nearly an endangered species in modern America, and one day the sculpture Neumann created of a towering woman with outstretched arms in supplication on the shoreline may stand as a memorial of the freedom that has been lost.

“The Albany Bulb is a place that has been important for me for well over a decade now,” Neumann said. “I first found out about it when I was taken there by people I know who are homeless and were living in People’s Park and who had moved there.”

Jimbow the Hobow, one of the mainstays at the Albany Bulb who created its free library, told Neumann there were people who were making “absolutely amazing paintings” down by the shore. The anonymous group of artists called themselves Sniff and their highly imaginative paintings on walls and big chunks of concrete sparked Neumann’s own artistic impulses. He began making sculptures out of driftwood and gigantic pieces of styrofoam from a broken-up dock.

Neumann’s political commitment to homeless people living at the landfill has equally deep roots. In 1999, Albany officials evicted a large community of homeless landfill residents and destroyed their encampment — an act of destruction that still echoes in the minds of people fighting today’s threatened mass eviction.

Neumann remembers it clearly. “We tried to stop Albany from kicking people out with no place to go,” he said. “At that time, as now, they had set up a little portable shelter in the racetrack parking lot for 50 people to go into. Nobody wanted to go into it, and people never got the kind of support they needed to fight back, either legal or political. So they scattered. They were pushed out onto the streets, and many into very desperate circumstances.”

The 1999 eviction was all the more unfair because Albany is one of the very few cities in the Bay Area that has refused to build shelter or housing for homeless people, and its dereliction of duty seems all the more inexcusable when it deliberately attempts to force homeless residents to move to other cities.

Today, 14 years later, Albany has still failed to build a single unit of shelter or transitional housing, and it is currently being sued for not even attempting to update its Housing Element, a crucial part of a municipality’s General Plan.

Cities are required under state law to show how they plan to meet the need for affordable housing. The City of Albany was sued in October 2013 by Albany Housing Advocates because city officials have not updated its Housing Element since 1992, and missed deadlines in 2001 and 2009 for mandatory updates.

“Albany never had any housing,” Neumann said. “It never had a shelter, and it never had transitional housing. Nothing. It was one of those communities that thought of itself as the ‘Urban Village by the Bay.’ They didn’t think of themselves as the kind of place that had homeless people — and they could do that because the homeless people were safely out of sight on this landfill.”

Glen Bachelder in his dwelling at the Albany Bulb community. Robin Lasser photo

A human dumping ground

The Albany landfill had been a dumping ground for construction debris, and due to the refusal of city officials to develop homeless programs, it became a dumping ground for human beings as well.

“The Albany police and other police would even direct people that they found in Albany who were homeless to go to the landfill,” Neumann said. “It was sort of the designated place for homeless people to go. So people went there and they made a community there. They built homes, and they lived in those homes, and they shared their lives together. They created a library, and all the networks needed for a successful community, and it was a place where they could be left alone.”

Unwanted, criminalized and discarded people were cast off to a dumping ground formed from unwanted refuse and debris. Ironically, the people who had been discarded created such an interesting and beautiful landscape that elitist environmentalists and city officials decided they wanted to seize the formerly unwanted dumping ground and destroy the community that had developed.

Neumann said, “People who could not live anywhere else or who could only live furtively, and in hiding, lived there in this beautiful place. And they had the solace of living in nature. They had million-dollar views there and they loved it. They loved nature, they loved the Bay, and they shared it with all kinds of other people who loved the landfill the way it was — for its wildness, for the fact that it wasn’t all controlled and tamed.”

In a society that abandons and banishes its poorest members, it was intolerable for city officials to realize that some of the homeless poor had found a rare degree of freedom and enjoyed those “million-dollar views” that normally are the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy.

People camped out on the shore at the Albany Bulb during the Festival of Resistance. Robin Lasser photo

The shelter as jail

One of the reasons that people cling so stubbornly to this landscape is because there is nowhere else to go, certainly nowhere as free or as beautiful. Homeless people are well aware that if they are evicted from the Bulb, their only alternatives are being warehoused in a shelter, being confined in one of the cramped trailers set up by the City of Albany, hiding in a back alley, or languishing in a jail cell at Santa Rita for one of the class-bound offenses that are only crimes when committed by poor people.

“There are 50 to 60 people living out there, many of them with significant disabilities,” Neumann said. “Many of them have serious physical health problems, and they are proposing to take people out of their homes, out of their community, and stuff 30 of them into these two portable trailers that they have set up.”

On November 22, the City of Albany opened two small, prefab portables at a cost of over $330,000 to shelter 30 people for six months. Neumann and several other attorneys joined with Albany Housing Advocates in requesting that the City Council drop its plan to spend $330,000 on portable shelters that would only house half of the Bulb residents in severely cramped conditions.

The attorneys pointed out that, after six months, the portables would be removed, all the people would be homeless again, and Albany would have spent the entire sum with no long-lasting benefit at all. In a letter to the City Council, Albany Housing Advocates showed how the city could spend the same amount of money on direct housing assistance and place Bulb residents in permanent housing. The council dismissed the plan out of hand.

For many, it was “déjà vu all over again.” In 1999, many homeless people had avoided the trailer-shelters, likening them to jail or an internment camp. In November of this year, Bulb residents and Albany Housing Advocates warned the City Council repeatedly that homeless people would not trade their freedom and their homes on the landfill for the confinement of oppressively regulated portable shelters. They were proven right when no one sought shelter in the portables in the first four days after they were first opened on Friday, November 22.

Neumann said that the inhabitants of the Albany Bulb are avoiding the recently opened portables, in part because they have even less room than most shelters.

“These are really cramped, uncomfortable places,” he said. “You’re regimented and forced into an enclosed space with people you don’t know. Many people out there are disabled and have serious issues with being claustrophobic. Many have very bad experiences with institutionalization. For this community that has been able to exist as human beings out on the landfill, to be forced into these sardine-can portables is very dangerous to their health.”

Two sculptures sit side by side, looking like “old friends sat on a park bench like book ends,” as Paul Simon wrote on the “Bookends” album. Robin Lasser photo

Living in a little box

Amber Whitson has lived at the Albany Bulb for several years and is a dedicated organizer who has worked tirelessly to help her fellow campers protect the encampment from expulsion.

When asked if she would enter the portable trailers, Whitson said, “Would any of these City Council members be willing to go live in a metal trailer or Berkeley Food and Housing Project shelter that has bed bug problems and is seismically unsafe since the Loma Prieta earthquake? No! Nobody else is going to want to live in a little box that you can only be in 16 hours a day regardless of your disability or not, and where you have to be watched over by a hall monitor the entire time you’re there.”

Whitson pointed out that when all the money has been spent after six months, the trailers will be closed and the homeless people will be cast away with nothing. “When they pack up the trailers and leave, we would be again homeless,” she said. “But we would be more homeless than we were before because they would have bulldozed our homes on the Bulb.”

People are being asked to give up their homes, their privacy and their freedom in return for a few months stay in a trailer. Many Bulb residents are in long-term relationships and would have to be separated if they sought shelter in the portables. Still others have deep emotional bonds with their dogs, and cannot bear to give them up, as required by shelter rules.

Neumann said, “Albany is setting up a situation where they’re saying: ‘Cram 30 of these folks into these portables. The rest of you, basically, go to hell, or go wherever you want, but don’t stay in Albany.’ ”

Cruel and unusual punishment

On November 12, a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by 10 Bulb dwellers and Albany Housing Advocates charged that Albany’s plan to evict people amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, and also a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The suit was filed by the East Bay Community Law Center, the Homeless Action Center and the firm of Kilpatrick, Townsend & Stockton.

At a hearing on November 18, U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer refused to grant a temporary restraining order that would have prevented Albany from evicting the camp dwellers. The lawsuit on behalf of the campers can still proceed.

Many homeless people from the Albany Bulb who attended the hearing were very disappointed with Judge Breyer’s ruling. Neumann said, “The people from the Bulb who were in the courtroom couldn’t understand that the judge seemed to be unwilling to prevent Albany from evicting them just as winter is coming on and in the middle of this season of holidays. It’s hard for people who are in touch with the real human realities of this situation to understand this ruling.

“Albany is taking them from a place of safety and community where they have been able to survive — and these are people who have not been able to survive very well out in the streets and the back alleys. That is all being taken away from them. What that means is that people are going to be out in the cold and very vulnerable.”

Neumann warned that allowing Albany to proceed with this eviction could take a serious toll on the health and safety of people who have nowhere left to go.

“Some of them are extremely vulnerable, people whose health and life may be at risk because of Albany’s actions,” he said. “Many people at the landfill have significant disabilities, mental and physical. Some have serious health problems, seriously compromised immune systems, some with mobility problems.”

Amber Whitson said that “when we had 62 people at the Bulb, there were 38 disabled people. Our population keeps fluctuating in size and variety, but there is a large number of disabled people out here — more than half. But they don’t care. They just want us out of their way.”

Does anyone really know what time it is? Clocks on the tree at Lewanda’s encampment. Robin Lasser photo

Outrage at Sierra Club

Whitson expressed outrage that supposedly liberal environmentalists are pressuring city officials to expel homeless people from the landfill. For decades, the landfill was just a construction dump. But Bulb inhabitants have lived in relative harmony with nature, and as environmentalists became aware that homeless people were living amidst vistas of scenic beauty, they began to covet a land that had long been ignored as a dumping ground.

As Whitson pointed out, the Albany Bulb is a landfill, and as such, it is hardly Yosemite or Sequoia National Park. “It’s a dump!” she said. “It’s a dump that nature took over, and because nature took it over, the Sierra Club and Citizens for Eastshore Park feel they have a claim to it. But that’s just not how it works. It shouldn’t be how it works.”

Albany Bulb activists held a protest outside Sierra Club offices in Berkeley on October 11 to voice their outrage at the Sierra Club’s support for the eviction of homeless and disabled persons.

Whitson said, “The Sierra Club and Citizens for Eastshore Park are pressuring and prodding and urging the council to kick us out of our homes for the environment, regardless of what the reality is. They’re spreading propaganda, and they just want us out of our homes. It’s not right.”

Neumann said, “One of the things that is really troubling is that some of the main instigators pushing the council in this direction have been so-called environmentalists. I think it’s an awful form of environmentalism that pits the poorest human beings against the environment. The reality of it is that if you look at what has happened out there to the land, the reason why the Bulb still is green and verdant is because people are still living there. If you look at what they’ve done to the places where they’ve kicked people out, they’ve turned it into a desert, they’ve clear-cut it.”

To add to the irony, people at the Albany Bulb are living more in harmony with the environment than most of our affluent society. They are not part of our consumer culture of massive consumption.

“If we are setting the environment against the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable of us, then we’re going to be in real trouble,” Neumann said. “Because the fact is, it’s the people out on the Bulb who are showing us how we’re going to need to live. They’re the ones who are living with the light carbon footprint, not us.

“This incredibly rich society does not provide the resources for people who are desperately in need, and here is a place where people are supporting themselves. It doesn’t cost a dime to the City of Albany, yet even that is being taken away.”

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