Home Is Where the Heart Is

It is heartbreaking to go out to the Albany Bulb and see what has been done to our former home. Those of us who still live on the streets are under constant persecution due to the inhumane laws that criminalize our very existence.
“Protest Grid.”  Albany Bulb residents carried these signs protesting their eviction to Albany City Hall. Image by Robin Lasser

“Protest Grid.” Albany Bulb residents carried these signs protesting their eviction to Albany City Hall. Image by Robin Lasser

 

by Amber Whitson

When we lived on the Albany Bulb, we all had problems. All people have problems, no matter where they live. Some people have problems that are more serious in nature than others.

Some of the most serious problems in this world include: hunger, violence, poverty and a lack of a place where people can feel confident in their ability to continue to call home. These are problems that many of us did not have — that is, until the last year and a half that our community existed on the Albany Bulb.

Right up until the moment that each of us were forcibly evicted from the Albany Bulb, we had Homes. They were not our “legal” homes. But they were the homes where many of us were healthier than we had ever been at any other time in our lives.

When we lived on the Bulb, we were happy. Life wasn’t “perfect” for any of us. But that had nothing to do with where we were living. Nobody’s life is perfect, no matter where they live. That is life.

Politicians and their “sheeple” pontificated about our “needs.” A need for “case management.” A need for housing. A need for “life skills” training. A need for sobriety from whatever we each self-medicated with. A need to need.

Life Before Eviction

While we lived on the Bulb, we never fell asleep to the sound of nearby gunfire.

Members of our community who had always been at odds with each other were not forced to dwell in cramped quarters together, in order to live free from fear of police harassment.

We enjoyed the “luxury” of being able to afford to buy groceries.

Many of us had more positive interactions (far more interactions, in general) with other members of society.

We were in better shape (riding our bikes to and from town).

We were in better health, eating healthier food and breathing healthier air, with our minds more at peace.

Life After Eviction

After the mass eviction of people from the Albany Bulb, as a result of the assistance we received, some of us were housed in the poorest areas of Richmond and Oakland.

One resident experienced their first drive-by shooting less than four days after they left the Bulb, and the outside of the building that they were placed in was pockmarked with bullet holes.

Another resident’s daughter was robbed when she went to the corner store. That same household (the family was housed in Richmond) had the unpleasant experience of someone being murdered on the sidewalk directly outside their house.

Yet another household (also in Richmond) had a 30-person gang riot occur in the street, directly in front of their house. Not one police officer responded to the incident.

Now, we have “better lives”!?

Now, we are unhappy, unrested, unsettled, cornered, trapped, cramped, hungry, isolated, alienated, overweight and undernourished.

Regardless of any so-called “assistance” we received, we are unhelped. And now, helping ourselves is so much harder. And, with the members of our former community scattered between West Oakland and Central Richmond (some of us are scattered as far away as Portland, Oregon), helping each other is nearly impossible.

Some say the eviction “helped” us. We would most likely disagree with that assertion. But, what do we know? After all, we were at Home on a Landfill!

With the housing market as it is, and with the City of Albany devoting so much more money and effort towards prosecuting former Bulb residents than it has ever spent on affordable housing, it comes as no surprise that virtually all of us who lived for years in Albany on the Bulb have now moved to other nearby cities.

 

In April 2014, bulldozers squashed the homes and lives of over 60 residents living at the Albany Bulb. Robin Lasser photo

In April 2014, bulldozers squashed the homes and lives of over 60 residents living at the Albany Bulb. Robin Lasser photo

 

Persecuted on the Streets

Those of us who still live on the streets are under constant persecution due to the inhumane laws and ordinances that effectively criminalize our very existence.

In Albany, one must acquire a special permit to park an oversized vehicle (which must be registered to an Albany address) on any city street. Even then, that vehicle can only park in one spot for up to 72 hours.

Berkeley and Richmond also have ordinances against parking a vehicle in one spot for more than 72 hours. Every city in the area has laws against “camping.”

Despite the growing occurrence of poverty, the “commons” is hardly for the common people. Maybe it should be renamed the “privileges”?

While roughly half of us remain “homeless,” there are many of us (even those who live indoors) who long for our homes out on the Albany Bulb.

It is heartbreaking to go out to the Bulb and see what has been done to our former home. Now that nobody lives there, trash receptacles have been installed, as have dispensers with bags for people to pick up after their dogs.

Every improvement that we made to the land has been left in place (more cost-effective for the City and the Parks District, to whom they are trying to transfer the land). Paths have been widened and turned into roads that vehicles now travel upon.

The beloved “Wild Art” of the Bulb is slowly being removed as “graffiti.” Soon, only the sculptures will remain (if that).

The City of Albany, whose police officers originally suggested that people with nowhere else to live should live on the Albany Bulb, is effectively trying to erase nearly all evidence of our community having ever existed.

Emmy and Mom-A-Bear sitting on Greg Kloehn's “Mobile Homes for the Homeless.” Photo by Barbara Boissevain

Emmy and Mom-A-Bear sitting on Greg Kloehn’s “Mobile Homes for the Homeless.” Photo by Barbara Boissevain

 

Preserving the Memory of Community

However, two projects which were started while we still lived out on the Albany Bulb now aim to preserve the memory of our community and the land while it was still under our care.

  1. “Refuge in Refuse: A Homesteading, Art and Culture Project” by San Jose State University’s Robin Lasser can be seen at www.refugeinrefuse.weebly.com
  2. “The Atlas of the Albany Bulb” by UC Berkeley’s Susan Moffat can be seen at www.albanybulbatlas.org

Both projects can be seen and interacted with at San Francisco’s SOMArts through March 12, 2015. [See “The Sense of Loss When a Community Is Erased” by Elena Gross on in this March issue of Street Spirit.]

There is something at once encouraging and frustrating about the acknowledgement and acclaim that is finally being given to our now-nonexistent community and dwellings.

Where were these masters of academia when we were trying to alert the public at large about our impending displacement?

Why were they silent at City Council meetings when Bulb residents and our supporters and advocates were begging for humane treatment and justice?

Why is it not part of the curriculum for students (with the exception of law students, to whom we owe much of the credit for what little success we had in the lawsuit to defend our dignity) to take on the role of activists and to fight for the rights of the poor and the persecuted?

I could speculate: How can one tell a conclusive story that yet has no end? How could one study the archeology of a “past people,” if that people still currently exists?

It was a strange and bittersweet experience for those of us who managed to attend the opening night of “Refuge in Refuse: Homesteading, Art and Culture Project” on February 12.

That evening, I rode to San Francisco in a van with eight of my former neighbors and Osha Neumann, a civil rights lawyer, Bulb artist and like family to anyone who has ever called the Albany Bulb their “Home.” I was thrilled to be seated next to Mom-a-Bear! When we all lived on the Bulb, she was one of my favorite people to hang out with. But, since our eviction, I have seen her only a handful of times.

When we arrived, a few of us stopped short of going inside the gallery immediately. Instead, we paused to smoke cigarettes and breathe some fresh air after the van ride across the Bay. While we were out there, we got to greet our former neighbors as they arrived.

We met and hugged and shook the hands of our friends’ family members. Many of us heard the words, “It’s so nice to finally meet you! I have heard so much about you!”

 

Amber Whitson found this fortune when she was writing this story. It gave her the perfect headline to describe her life at the Albany Bulb.

Amber Whitson found this fortune when she was writing this story. It gave her the perfect headline to describe her life at the Albany Bulb.

 

A Community That No Longer Exists

When we went inside, what greeted us was essentially a room full of bite-size pieces of our former lives, displayed with the necessary blank white spaces in between and put into an easily digestible format for the public to enjoy.

Many of us compared the exhibit to a postmortem of our community that showed people what certain features of our lives looked like, so that they can feel sympathy and feel as though they want to take some action to save our community.

A community that doesn’t even exist anymore.

One of the most positive things to result from the recent exhibit is the opening up of people’s minds to the fact that we were a community of human beings, uprooted and evicted.

We were scattered to the wind, our peaceful lives sent spinning in upheaval. Traumatized and left to find our way without the stability that we had long enjoyed in our homes on the Albany Bulb (some of us, for over 20 years).

In my ongoing activism for the Bulb and its refugees, sometimes I get asked what people can do to help.

Honestly, it is too late to “help” something that has already been destroyed.

However, there are causes that people can get involved in which aim to prevent future devastation from happening to other people and communities.

Write to your local government representatives. Tell them that you support the passing of a Homeless Bill of Rights and a Right to Rest Act. No city in this state should be allowed to criminalize the existence of people because they are deemed too poor or unsightly for the rest of the public to know about.

As for any opportunity to interact with the former residents of the Albany Bulb?

On April 25, 2015, a contingent of former residents plans to converge on the Bulb. Many residents were barred from setting foot on ANY “open space” in Albany for one year. April 25th marks the end of their “stay away order.”

There is a Facebook page that is maintained by former Bulb residents and their supporters: www.facebook.com/sharethebulb.

Hopefully, some day, people who have virtually nothing will be allowed to keep what little they have — instead of having it destroyed in the name of “progress.”

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