How a Community Was Scattered to the Wind

At 4:30 a.m., the police came, 30 of them. Armed with assault rifles, they broke down our front gate, tore down the door to our living space and arrested us for lodging. Our home was destroyed, our puppy was taken to the pound and our possessions were scattered to the wind.

by Amber Whitson

Solar panels and person

Whitson’s partner Phyl built this solar array out of pieces of planks from old boats. The solar panels enabled them to charge their batteries and phone. People living on the Albany Bulb took care to live in harmony with the land. Lydia Gans photo

 

For many years I was homeless. Then, we came to the Albany Bulb. Gradually, we built up a sense of security, an expectation of privacy and what felt like a sense (but turned out to only be an illusion) of the rights and privileges commonly enjoyed by the average American citizen who is fortunate enough to have a home.

For more than 20 years, when help was needed by either the land or the residents on the Albany Bulb, it was the people who lived there who sprang into action.

When fires broke out, we extinguished them. When someone was injured, we provided aid to them. If their condition was beyond that which we could provide care for, it was the residents who would call the Albany police and then go out to the road and direct the ambulance to their location.

The community that lived on the Albany Bulb was essentially self-sufficient (with the exception of government benefits for some disabled residents).

But, that was probably part of the problem in the eyes of the 1%. We didn’t ask for enough. We didn’t beg for enough. We weren’t needy enough.

Then, when the easily purchased powers-that-be were urged to demolish and clear away everything that our humble community had accomplished in the name of development and “progress,” the City of Albany launched a campaign against the very concept of homelessness within its borders. And it very nearly won…

When the City Council voted unanimously to evict the entire population of the Albany Bulb, with minimal transitional services, a team of lawyers stepped up to defend our right to exist.

Unfortunately, the way our legal system is set up allows “interpretation” of the laws that protect our American liberties by individual judges. The judge assigned to our case didn’t see the truth behind the lies that the City of Albany perpetuated about our community and the treatment that we were receiving at their hands.

City officials created the Albany Temporary Transition Shelter, yet it would have been a nightmare for virtually any person who suffers from a mental or physical disability to attempt to stay in.

In fact, when I mentioned my partner’s mental disability when asking about a reasonable accommodation for him, I was told by the shelter workers, supplied by Operation Dignity, that “We don’t have a special box he can sleep in, or anything…”

As every single person who lived on the Albany Bulb was gradually denied access to the shelter, the police also began issuing citations to people for being at home at night.

Constant Police Harassment
The police would walk up to their door and call out the person’s name. Then, when they answered, the police would tell them to come out to talk to them, and when they did, the police would issue them a citation for curfew violation.

For a few weeks there, Albany police officers were even setting up a checkpoint at the Landfill entrance at 9:55 p.m. every night. When Bulb residents came home after 10:00 p.m. (park curfew) they would get another curfew violation citation.

In Albany, if a person receives four citations within a 12-month period alleging infraction violations of the Albany Municipal Code, then their fourth citation is prosecuted as a misdemeanor.

However, the City of Albany asked the district attorney to request that the judge issue stay-away orders from the Bulb to anyone known to have advocated for the Bulb or for its (now former) inhabitants.

By mid-April of 2014, most residents of the Albany Bulb had received two or more citations each.

At a case management conference (a necessary step in the litigation process), it became clear that the City of Albany was going to prevail in court. So, Albany officials made the residents of the Bulb who were party to the suit a settlement offer.

Each plaintiff would receive a total of $3,000 cash (for relocation expenses), and would have to agree to move all their belongings out of their camp in less than five days. Each plaintiff would then have to leave the Bulb no later than April 25, 2014, and then stay away from all of Albany’s open space areas (including the Albany Bulb and the Albany Neck that leads to it) for a period of no less than 12 months. They would then have their citations dropped.

The people who were offered the settlement terms were basically given only two choices.

With the first option, Albany Bulb residents would be forced out of their homes by incarceration and a court-ordered, involuntary, stay-away order enforced by the police, resulting in the loss of their longtime homes. They would be forced into homelessness, with citations, fines and probation hanging over their heads, leaving them with far less, in every sense, than they previously had.

Or, in the second option, they could try to squeeze some sense of comfort or dignity from the experience of gathering up what little of their possessions they could fathom of ever again having a place to keep (now that they were all facing imminent homelessness) before leaving the rest behind and voluntarily agreeing to stay away from all of Albany’s open spaces for at least 12 months (which, by the way, is not a police enforceable stay-away order).

In return, all their recent legal troubles that came about as a result of their living on the Bulb would disappear. And, rather than being kicked out with nothing (as countless individuals experiencing homelessness in this country are kicked out of both short- and long-term sleeping spots, every day), they would be kicked out and given a $3,000 consolation prize.

It isn’t the fact that all but two of the plaintiffs accepted this settlement that bothers me, personally. What does bother me is that the City of Albany has been allowed to pretend that they actually tried to provide anything to people experiencing homelessness in Albany or any other city. They even made it sound as though “$3,000” was so much money.

Unfriendly to Minorities
However, Albany has a longstanding reputation of being less than friendly to minorities. And people who are experiencing homelessness within Albany’s borders are no different.

My partner and I were the only two people who were eligible for the settlement who did not agree to the terms. Instead, we asked the judge in the case to dismiss our claims without prejudice.

Which he did.

On April 25, 2014, the day that everyone left the Albany Bulb, I walked around that evening on the trails and noted how it was similarly quiet to how it was when we first moved out there seven and a half years earlier.

Back then, at night, you couldn’t run into someone who lived there if you tried. The only way to find any of us, at night, was to go to our camps.

However, as our population increased and the Bulb became less like a sparsely inhabited village and more like a densely populated city, somebody was almost always heading somewhere, on some trail, at all hours. Hardly ideal conditions in which to be a hermit.

But, on April 25, I walked around the Bulb at night and was shocked at the empty feeling that was left in the wake of the community that had existed on the Bulb. It was as if l had grown accustomed to the bustle of my cohabitants and it felt like there was something missing without their presence.

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This is how Albany officials trashed the possessions of Amber and Phyl after demolishing their home. Harmony Chapman photo

 

Down To The Wire
On my partner’s birthday on May 7, 2014, two Albany police officers came to our gate and called out his name. He came to the gate and was immediately issued a citation for “camping” (since the officers witnessed him at home in our “camp”). That was the first citation, of any sort, that either I or my partner had ever received for living in our home on the Bulb.

But, it would certainly not be the last…

On the morning of Friday, May 10, my partner and I stepped outside of our overhang to find an officer standing within our perimeter filling out “camping” tickets for both of us.

The time had come for action.

That day my partner put up a wall made of tarp across the back entrance to our place (a sign that things were looking bad, as that entrance had been just a big opening ever since we moved there, having no need to worry about keeping people out). The tarp wall was about seven feet tall, just tall enough that the police couldn’t see in to see if we were in our “camp” without violating our Fourth Amendment rights to do so.

I posted a status update on the Share the Bulb Facebook about our having received tickets when we first stepped out of bed that day. By that night supporters had begun to arrive at the Bulb.

Within hours, a plan of ongoing support and protection had been determined. And within days, shifts had been established, walkie-talkies had been bought, food drop-offs were being made and the City of Albany was getting pissed.

I emailed the City of Albany with their feedback template and asked for a response to my concerns about the City having violated our civil rights, repeatedly, throughout the “eviction” of the Bulb’s population.

To my surprise, I received a phone call from City Clerk Nicole Almaguer the very next day! But, instead of addressing my concerns, the clerk asked me to compromise the safety and security of our home and ourselves. For days, the only thing preventing the police from barging into our home as we steadily dismantled it was the tarp walls that my partner started building on the day that I received my first citation.

A Symbol of the Constitution
Those walls were a simple, yet powerful, symbol of our U.S. Constitution. We had a reasonable expectation of privacy in our home and within those walls and the police knew that. The clerk’s response to my email concerning violations of our civil rights was to ask me to surrender another right!

Her promise: “Take down those tarp walls and we won’t remove any personal property until Friday at 1:00 pm.”

I asked her if she could guarantee that we wouldn’t receive citations while packing and moving our stuff.

Her answer was “No.”

That phone call made clear to me just how much Albany cares about civil rights.

For 19 days after I received my first camping ticket, our supporters helped us to hold down our place, while also helping us move things to storage.

City officials knew that my partner and I were moving our possessions into storage. I was, at that point, making frequent trips, both by bike and by car, to our storage. Yet, it was apparently just not happening fast enough for the City of Albany.

I made sure to post signs on the exterior of our fence, stating that the dogs were on leads at all times and asking for police and others to not enter nor tamper with personal property without a search warrant.

On May 27, one of the core supporters went to the BART station to meet up with another supporter and was arrested on the way back to the Bulb. We knew that their arrest was a bad sign, as they had been the only ones on duty at night, every night, for about three days.

At about 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, May 29, the police came, 30 of them. Armed with motorcycles and assault rifles, they broke down our front gate, tore down the door to our living space and arrested us and one supporter for lodging.

Our home was destroyed, our puppy was taken to the pound and our possessions were scattered to the wind. The City stored some of our belongings and shoved the rest into a pile outside of where our gate had been. Thankfully, there was a supporter on her way to relieve the man who was arrested with us, and she arrived about 30 minutes after the police all cleared out. She immediately called out for assistance and began trying to salvage what was left of our home.

We were, and are still now, truly homeless.

It is exceedingly difficult trying to adjust to life in the Concrete Jungle after living in the relative wilderness for more than seven years — let alone, adjusting to homelessness after having had a stable home for just as long.

Now, the entire community of disabled individuals, who once enjoyed a peaceful existence out on the Bulb, are being shuffled around from place to place, sidewalk to sidewalk and hotel to hotel. Displacement and insecurity is the norm for us, now.

Yet, the City of Albany is lauding their “success” and “progress.” These accomplishments are not celebrated by the former inhabitants of the Albany Bulb.

Albany still has no desire to insure that their city has any housing for the poorest citizens. Even as the number of people experiencing poverty, hunger and homelessness in our nation increases, Albany rents remain high, they have no food bank (instead, they send people to Berkeley’s food bank) and they have no services for assisting people transitioning out of homelessness. They refuse to even entertain the idea of opening a drop-in center.

As the United Nations and international news media continue to shed light on America’s criminalization of homelessness, Albany is blindly marching on with its economic cleansing, kicking out any homeless people who are caught sleeping on the streets of the city, and forcing them to move on down the road. They have effectively made it untenable for any who are not housed to be in the city after dark.

For a couple months, a fairly large contingent of former Bulb residents had taken up residence under I-80 at Gilman Street in Berkeley. Unfortunately, the additional bodies living in that limited space made for strained conditions and the entire encampment (including the people who had lived there for years before that) was cleared out recently. Now, even fewer of us former Bulbarians can find each other than before.

Also, the City of Albany is having the district attorney request stay-away orders for myself and the supporter who was arrested with us. Our next court date on our charge of “illegal lodging” is set for August 13 at 9 a.m. in Department 115, 6th floor.

And so it goes. A town whose municipal code has an inordinately long and strict section about the nuisance of leaf blowers, continues its use of the so-called “leaf-blower effect” on its homeless residents — essentially blowing its problems onto the next town’s sidewalk.

Against the odds, my partner and I are fortunate enough to be currently staying in the basement of an Albany resident. We are both still actively seeking housing that we can afford. But, with the current attitude in Albany towards homelessness and those experiencing it, when our stay there is up, we will likely have to leave this town behind.

But, no matter where we are living: the Bulb will always be home, in our hearts.

 

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