Disturbing the Ghosts of the Albany Landfill

Where will the homeless people go? They will blend into the wave of humanity that live under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in doorways; they will sink deeper into invisibility

by Janny Castillo and Terry Messman

City officials sent bulldozers to remove homeless encampments at the Albany Landfill, a disturbing reminder of an earlier eviction of a homeless village. Lydia Gans photo

In July 2005, the City of Albany once again sent bulldozers to clear out homeless encampments at the Albany Landfill. A news report made nearly no mention of the people that had made the landfill their home and what had happened to them. I went in search of them. Maybe it was too late to help, but I was hoping to give them a voice, a chance to tell their story.

The demolition of a homeless village at the Albany Landfill in 1999 is still a source of outrage for many who remember it vividly. So, when Albany officials acted again this July to remove homeless encampments at the landfill, they disturbed the ghosts and ghostly memories of the cruel demolition that was originally carried out as an anti-homeless operation.

In a year-long series of articles in 1999, Street Spirit reported on the police sweeps, arrests, and destruction of encampments at the Albany shoreline, and the heartless removal of a community of homeless people who had made the Albany Bulb their home for seven years.

Then, after the demolition of the landfill’s encampments and the exile of its longstanding homeless community, we were introduced to Rabbit, his neighbors and the artists that worked and lived in the sloping hills through Tomas McCabe’s award-winning documentary, “Bum’s Paradise.” In 1999, it was aptly described as “a landfill at the edge of the bay, (where) a colony of homeless people live with a million-dollar view and pennies in their pockets.”

A village of homeless people once lived in freedom in these beautiful surroundings in tipis and self-made dwellings of every description. During the mass expulsion of the village in 1999, many were arrested by Albany police for refusing to vacate their shacks and tipis. To add insult to injury, the City of Albany prosecuted several landfill residents for violating a camping ban law enacted solely to evict the homeless defendants.

On December 15, 1999, 12 jurors found defendant Michael Smith not guilty on all three counts of violating the camping ban. Smith, known as “Picasso Mike” for the wildly colorful murals he painted on blocks of stone and discarded construction debris at the Albany Landfill, had been arrested three times for refusing police orders to vacate his self-built tipi, telling the police he had nowhere else to live.

The not-guilty verdict was a vindication of the human rights of homeless people, and a judgment against Albany officials for failing to create any housing alternatives for homeless residents. The acquittal demonstrated that Albany officials and police had acted irresponsibly in outlawing sleeping outdoors anywhere in the city, then arresting camp dwellers under a hastily enacted camping ban.

The trial revealed a troubling pattern of broken promises, deception and inaction by Albany officials who had initially pledged to find replacement housing for the soon-to-be-rousted landfill inhabitants. As testimony by Albany police officers, service providers, attorneys, and camp dwellers showed, Albany officials did not find alternative housing for any of the homeless people evicted from the landfill, and, amazingly, did not provide any homeless services or shelter whatsoever anywhere in the city.

Berkeley Attorney David Ritchie, who represented Smith, utilized the Eichorn case decision from Santa Ana as a precedent in arguing that Smith should be allowed to use the necessity defense. The Eichorn decision found that, in cities that don’t provide adequate shelter for all homeless residents, a defendant can argue it was necessary to commit the “lesser evil” of illegal sleeping to avoid the greater evil of being forced to leave the city or being deprived of sleep.

“The bottom line is that the City of Albany has to provide some kind of alternatives for homeless people,” Ritchie said. “They decided to take these people who are Albany residents – some of them lived there for years — and make it illegal for them to live in Albany by passing this ordinance. They were basically outlawing homelessness by passing laws to make it illegal to live there. A city cannot say, ‘Hey, if you want to get away from our anti-camping law, just go to the next city that doesn’t have one.'”

That trial upheld the legal rights of homeless people, but the damage had already been done. Scores of homeless people had been subjected to full-scale police raids, had their rights to protection from unreasonable search violated repeatedly, lost all their possessions when police seized and discarded them like so much trash, and were driven from their homes.

Many homeless people exiled from the Albany Landfill suffered additional arrests when police rousts evicted them from vacant lots, freeway underpasses and railroad tracks they camped at in Albany, Berkeley and Richmond.

Since that time, artists have painted pictures at the Albany Bulb. Nature-lovers have walked their dogs there. A few homeless people have quietly moved back to live there again in makeshift camps.

But many homeless people never found as good a home after the demolition of the landfill encampment in 1999. And the City of Albany has never done the right thing, the humane thing, to correct this tragic history of forced exile.

With this heartrending history in mind, I walked the slopes of the landfill again on a July morning during this year’s demolition. That morning, I saw devastation against a backdrop of beauty. The water of the bay encloses the landfill like a mother cradling its child. The plants, the trees and vegetation grow wild and free under the sea wind and the constant sun.

The roads had been widened to accommodate the use of heavy equipment. Choosing this method to clear out materials that were originally brought in by homeless people by hand and wheeled in by grocery carts had done serious damage to the environment. The bulldozers had left their cruel mark.

The true California natives, the palm trees, coyote bushes and acacias, along with many of their sisters and brothers, had been trampled, crushed and uprooted. It was sad and unnecessary; but I knew that in time, they would flourish again.

It was the displaced people that concerned me more. I searched for awhile but could not find anyone. I did find Tomas McCabe who stopped and talked for awhile. He was on his way to photograph the last remaining pieces of art.

The Berkeley Daily Planet reported that about 10 homeless people were living there. It also reported that the clean up, which included three 30-yard containers, a four-yard front loader, a backhoe and numerous bulldozers, cleared 12 homeless camps — all this at a cost of $15,000. I wonder how much was ever spent on relocation.

Osha Neumann, an artist and civil rights attorney, had asked the Albany City Council not to use heavy equipment because of the environmental damage it was sure to cause. Public Works Supervisor John Medlock, quoted in the Berkeley Daily Planet on July 22, 2005, responded that the large amount of debris required the use of heavy machinery.

“Plus there is a lot of broken glass and needles,” he said. “We are trying to handle the debris as little as possible.” I made a mental note to always use bulldozers when picking up needles and glass.

I stood on a cliff and looked out at the water; behind me were the remains of a trampled-down campsite. I imagined crawling out of a tent and waking up to this truly incredible sight. I thought that, living here, one could forget life’s troubles, if only for a moment.

As I walked back, I found what the bulldozers had missed. A mother tree stood beside a road; her shade could have been somebody’s home, and lovely objects were hanging from her branches: a red stuffed puppy, purple flowers, a red heart, a silver plate. I couldn’t tell if it was one of the encampments, but it was a beautiful space.

The landfill is planned to become part of East Shore State Park, which means we will not lose this important natural habitat.

But where will the homeless people go? They will blend into the wave of humanity that live under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in doorways; they will sink deeper into invisibility. Until we choose to see them for what they are: our responsibility. There are many individuals and families living on the streets and in our shelters that are waiting for a chance at wellness and stability; by combining resources we can make a difference.

How? Support your local homeless service providers. One suggestion is Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS). See www.self-sufficiency.org or call (510) 649-1930, or e-mail: jannyselfsufficiency@yahoo.com

To find out more about the film “Bum’s Paradise,” visit www.bumsparadise.com or e-mail: Tomas@BumsParadise.com. To see the coverage in the Berkeley Daily Planet, see www.berkeleydailyplanet.org

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