Over the past year there have been many community conversations in Albany Patch and city government meetings regarding the people living at the Albany Landfill.
I feel called to argue something obvious to those of us who visit the place: that the Landfill is a functioning public space, visited by hundreds of individuals and families every weekend who enjoy it very much.
The homeless people who live there should be allowed to stay because there really is nowhere else to go and the Landfill is already being shared effectively with those who visit for recreation. It is remarkable and unique as being the only place that has been developed solely by users of the space, both visitors and residents alike.
If all these visitors preferred the manicured, barren landscapes of Cesar Chavez Park and Point Isabel, they would go there instead; we are blessed to have so many options of varied public spaces to use here in the East Bay.
ALTERNATIVE HOUSING IS SCARCE
I have worked in the homeless services non-profit world, and in that world it is common knowledge that the shelters are always full. There is a 10-year waitlist for subsidized housing in Berkeley, and it's non-existent in Albany.
County Welfare pays homeless people only $105 each month in addition to food stamps. Most homeless folks have a disability and cannot work, but it takes years to get this documented and approved by Social Security, and most people cannot keep up with the paperwork.
Those who do only get $10,140 each year from Social Security, and they stretch my imagination with their ingenuity to get by, pay rent, and buy food for this amount. Many of them fail and end up homeless anyway, because it's really hard to make it work on $10k a year.
The homeless are trying their best already, and they don't have much support. The city of Albany cannot solve this national problem.
HOMELESSNESS EXISTS WORLDWIDE
Every city in the world has a homeless population. American cities push homeless people out of town or put them in county jail, which these days costs approximately $40,000 of tax money per year for each inmate.
Other cities consider it a totally normal part of life to have paupers living on the edge of town. I've traveled all over West Africa and Central America, and people there would never consider clearing out a homeless encampment; rather most people know someone who lives there and donate what they can to help.
I hope that everyone in our country will take up this mindset.
We need a lesson to count our blessings and put our energy toward helping those in need instead of trying to move them somewhere else so we can have a quieter walk by the Bay.
Where would everyone go if they were forced to leave the Landfill? Solano Avenue? San Pablo? Shattuck Avenue? Telegraph? The answer is jail, eventually. Then back on the streets for awhile.
The shelters are full, and it's illegal to sleep everywhere else. Things haven't changed since 1894 when the ironic French writer Anatole France wrote: "The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."
WE NEED REAL ALTERNATIVES
We need legal places to be homeless and the Albany Landfill is a shining example. Ask the police: They go there all the time making rounds, they know who lives there, and they know that violence does not happen there.
I have found over the years that the community there is very open and caring.
I have been welcomed as a fellow human, and I have good friendships with residents. I bring books, blankets, tents, food, water and candles for folks because I have enough to share these days (knock on wood!).
They hold big community meals on holidays that are absolutely delightful; and they support one another with the day-to-day of surviving. They embody a tremendous strength, humility and love while enduring life situations that might break me down; and I have found them truly inspiring.
I encourage you to look at the website for Dignity Village in Portland, OR, and see a great example of a functioning homeless community, that is explicitly sanctioned by the city. Many citizens of Portland, including church groups and Boy Scouts, donate building materials for houses, and food. Green designers have helped build strawbale homes in the Village as well, and it's been thriving and improving for over 10 years. They have rules, a board of directors and are self-governing.
A POSSIBILITY FOR ALBANY?
I propose that Albany do the same at the Landfill. If there was running water, a bathroom, and regular dumpster trash pickup at the Landfill, the situation would improve drastically, immediately.
Until a few years ago there was water access on Buchanan Street, well west of the highway. City employees removed it, I don't know why.
Dumpsters were immediately filled by residents the few times they were brought out there. I don't know why there isn't a regular pickup.
City staff have said that the dumpsters are 'free' because they are covered by an already existing contract with Waste Management.
The fact that there is still only one dirty port-a-potty at a place used by hundreds, if not a thousands, of people each week is ridiculous—but fitting for a Landfill that is technically 'undesignated City property' and not a park.
The agenda for says city staff recommend spending over $190,000 on new radios for the police department; I would vote for other priorities.
Rules about cleanliness, dog control, and public disturbance are already self-enforced by the community that lives at the Landfill, and people are asked to leave when they consistently can't comply. The individuals living at the Landfill are competent enough to build a Dignity Village and, in fact, they already have.
A POSITIVE IMPACT
The homeless have been good for the landfill.
All the trails and roads were originally cut from the bush by residents, who also made most of the art, cut out the dangerous metal to recycle, and turned concrete rubble piles into patios and walkways. (They could be paid for this hard work, actually.)
They have planted and nurtured fruit trees and native buckeye trees. They have directed lost hikers. They have put out fires started by high school parties late in the night.
They called 911 for kids who needed Coast Guard rescue, and rescued 54 birds after the .
They have solar panels, bicycle carts and bicycle-powered machines. They are a model for how to live lightly on the Earth, and we can learn a lot from them.
Besides, they are not sleeping in front of houses, schools or stores, or costing tax dollars in jail.
The homeless encampment at the landfill IS a solution; not a problem. Trash dumpsters, bathrooms and running water would help enhance this solution.
The landfill that attracts so many visitors has been created by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of those experiencing homelessness; and they have succeeded against all odds. With a little support from those of us with houses, this miracle of a community can flourish.
In the future ideal world, when no one is put in jail for being homeless anymore, we can be proud that we helped the country get there.
I consider myself lucky to live near the quirky phenomenon that is the . It's a place where rich and poor meet and mingle, and a world-renowned public art site, where the trash of the 20th century becomes shelter, art, and a source of sustenance.
It's a homeless encampment that could be recognized as a sustainable-living research center for green building, and bicycle and solar technology... and an art school... and an urban archaeology museum... so many things, if we dare to dream.
Interested in this topic? Click the "Keep me posted" button below this story. Read more about homelessness in Albany here.