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Column: The Homeless Encampment at the Landfill IS a Solution, Not a Problem

Andy Kreamer is a resident of Berkeley and a homeless services provider. Interested to learn more about this topic? Click the "Keep me posted" button below. Have an idea for a guest column? Email albany@patch.com.

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.

Loren Yglecias March 15, 2012 at 10:26 PM
Yes, I love the Bulb the way it is and bring visitors from all around to show them the diversity of public spaces we enjoy here in the East Bay. I love the unique art and atmosphere that the residents have contributed to the landscape! I really hope civic entities don't spoil our treasure.
Peggy McQuaid March 15, 2012 at 10:28 PM
Actually the council rejected the suggestion to spend $10,000 on the Fern Tiger followup report. They did spend $600,000 on Voices to Vision several years ago to discuss privately held land that the City does not own, while continuously ignoring the bulb which it does own.
James Henderson March 15, 2012 at 11:04 PM
I am a homeless outreach worker in the East Bay and my objective is moving homeless into housing. I have outreached people at the bulb. These inhabitants have been rejected from the public and they have created a working community of their own on a former landfill. No one has to see them or deal with them. I really don't see the problem. However, families do like to go there and hike, walk dogs, look at the art, and so on. If they choose to, they seem to enjoy the area without problems of being in the midst of homeless people. Shattuck Ave is not much different except for the fact it is hard to avoid. These people are low to no income and cannot afford housing and housing resources are scarce. People living on the bulb have nowhere to go, how about living on Solano Ave? You don't mind dishing these people off on Berkeley. How about adding a housing first program. You push your personal problem off on Berkeley and we can't use our housing vouchers in Albany. As for managed camping, I'm looking for the appeal. There are thousands of acres of parks in the bay area, Tilden, Redwood, East Bay Regional etc., and you think people want to pay $35 a night to stay on a landfill. How enticing? Not to mention it is a mini pennisula surrounded by the bay, cold! James Henderson Homeless to Housing Case Manager, East Bay
John Doh! March 15, 2012 at 11:31 PM
Thanks for the correction and the additional info.
Dawn March 15, 2012 at 11:32 PM
Great article! I live in one of the houses that is closest to the bulb. I find it interesting that so many people are concerned about getting the homeless out of the bulb, while our neighborhood feels mostly ignored by Albany. We meet residents of the bulb on a daily basis and have had no problems at all. In fact, they have been very respectful of our/their neighborhood. I agree with many of the other commentators that there aren't many other solutions for homeless people in Albany. I'm sure that most of these people would choose to live indoors if they could afford it. As for the "infringement"...other than personal camps, everyone is free to explore any part of the bulb. Is it really necessary to insist on evicting homeless people in order to guarantee others the right to walk on any part of the land that they want to walk on? We are a community, which means that we all have to give a little. My daughter sometimes make an extra batch of cookies just to bring to the residents of the bulb. It's a small thing for us to do, but it can brighten the days of a lot of people. It's certainly not a perfect place, but we, as a community, can work together to make it better.
Hart Migdal March 16, 2012 at 02:42 AM
There are numerous public spaces in the East bay, and like all dynamic metropolitan areas, there are myriad options for parks to spend time in. If you don't like the strange and beautiful state of the Albany Bulb, try somewhere else. There is no reason to limit the organic evolution of what once served as a space for refuse (literally composed of a bedrock of refuse), and now fulfills a complex public service of 'shelter,' recreation space, and living art. Residents of the East Bay should be honored to have the option of feeling safe, and welcome in such an environment. Those who do not can feel welcome to fly a kite in the parks down the road- no hard feelings. To force the age-old "you don't have to go home (all you homeless) but you can't stay here" move-along attitude towards a community that has participated in creating such a unique and living organ as the Albany Bulb is below those who use the park, and who have seen its potential. Mrs. Papalia's comment citing how cost-ineffective addressing the issues of water and sewer-line access is out of measure with the enormous cost of placing the residents in the only available shelter: the county jail, to say nothing of how unjust and unrealistic this course of action would be. I think of the Bulb as a compromise in action. It is a real manifestation of the coexistence of displaced, disinherited people with the recreating public, and on city managed public space. Now lets get them a toilet, and a trash can.
Chris Schildt March 16, 2012 at 04:22 AM
I've been going to the bulb since I was a teenager, and always leave feeling inspired by the creative efforts that have turned this landfill into art. I have always had good experiences with the residents who live there, and I hope these services get added, which will improve conditions for all of us who use the park
Caryl O'Keefe March 16, 2012 at 04:31 AM
It's not just that it's not cost effective (I faintly recall $1.5M) to run water/sewer lines, it's that EBMUD (and probably related regulatory agencies too) are very unlikely to agree to run such small lines to the Bulb. Or even a shorter distance to the area just east of Albany Beach where EBRPD explored options. It's too much disruption, work, approvals, etc etc for a very small use. More broadly, I want to echo the spirit of ADeweyan's and Francesco's posts: pls respect others' perspectives. Unwarranted assertions about others' motivations do not encourage the effort to learn and understand. And re understanding, thank you Mr.Henderson for speaking of your work, the "housing first" approach makes sense. Can you expand on your comment, "..we can't use our housing vouchers in Albany?" Also, do you think if housing vouchers could be used in Albany, that Bulb residents would want to use them? thanks
Peter Ralph March 16, 2012 at 04:51 AM
Thanks for the article. I love the landfill, and as many others do, often bring visiting relatives there. I take my child there. Albany should be willing to try something new and different, especially something that takes so little of its resources and involves so many of its citizens.
Lizz Bronson March 16, 2012 at 09:23 AM
It seems to me there could be a way to get funding(grants) to create a unique program at the bulb that supports the existing community while they are the ones running services and overseeing improvements to their area. It seems to me a public health issue if a community is already living there and they don't have the basic sanitation needed. If it isn't cost effective, couldn't another way or alternative be created? This discussion is also a great opportunity to think about how homeless services are examined and facilitated in Albany-Berkeley under the current agreement, and to raise awareness about homeless issues in our area in general. For example, if someone is homeless in Albany, there is no place they can walk into to get services the way you can at the masc or women's daytime drop-in shelter This is also a particularly interesting discussion, because generally homeless people go through a system of shelters, single residencies/transitional housing, etc.,. Wouldn't it be interesting if homeless people were at the core of the solution rather than the customers? I know that there are a host of issues, but... I think ultimately if certain criteria are listed in resolving the situation, we have the opportunity to do something amazing, something never done before.
Lizz Bronson March 16, 2012 at 09:28 AM
Also...I know outreach workers come through Albany...but I feel strongly that it is time for Albany to offer enhanced homeless services.
Hart Migdal March 16, 2012 at 01:23 PM
In response to Caryl O'Keefe when she said "Unwarranted assertions about others' motivations do not encourage the effort to learn and understand." I've reread the other comments and feel as though this must be in response to my comment about how calling a toilet cost-ineffective is out of measure with the tremendous cost of jailing Bulb residents. (I do think she jumped to conclusions, a bit). I want to clear this up: I am not trying to assert that Albany WANTS to jail the residents rather than give them a toilet. The fact is, as Andy explains so well in his article, real alternatives for that community must be created before they are removed or relocated. In the meantime, I think that the Albany Bulb community has occupied and created a space that is unique and beautiful not in spite of, but as a result of their presence. I have been to Dignity village is Portland, and seen a space that has the cooperation with the city. The encampment there began closer to downtown Portland on city owned property, and with the work of residents and homeless activists, a different city-lot was procured where sanitary and MANY other services could be offered, at a reasonable cost, and with the cooperation of the city. The residents were able to organize into a non-profit, to build structures, and to create a circumstance of dignity for themselves. That's the kind of alternative needed that balances the requirements of regulatory agencies, cost to the public, and the dignity of residents.
Simon March 16, 2012 at 07:46 PM
I love the Landfill, and the Landfillians! It seems that people who use "I don't feel comfortable" as a reason for changing a place are the same people who otherwise have full access to whatever places the feel like going. The thing is, everyone has someplace where they just don't fit. For some folks it's the gym, or the woods, or the mall, or a specific neighborhood, or a religious building. For others it's the Landfill. No big deal! I imagine that the folks who feel that -all- Albany residents should feel comfortable in -all- public places would not be particularly welcoming to Landfillians at their favorite playgrounds. Mr. Kreamer's article is dead-on. Well said! And all my best wishes and fond regards to the Landfillians!
Emilie Raguso March 17, 2012 at 01:38 AM
Via the Rec Department: The Rec Dept is offering a Bulb tour next Sat (3/24) from 2-4pm rain or shine. The emphasis is on Permaculture and will be lead by Delia Yuhas Carroll. It might be interesting/informative for folks unfamiliar with the area that want to take a closer look. It cost $12 and for more info call the Rec Dept at 510*524-9283 or check out the description in the Activity Guide on the City website under adult special interest. (http://albany.patch.com/events/permaculture-tour-of-the-albany-bulb)
Kate March 17, 2012 at 02:14 AM
I loved the article! As a woman living in a city, I am usually very uncomfotable walking alone after dark. In fact, the Albany landfill is the only place in the entire East Bay area that I have felt safe enough to wander around in during all hours of the night. I have been awestruck by some of the most awesome art, I have made friends, I have taken naps, and I have enjoyed some of my best moments out there. I note the landfill as one of the top places people should visit when friends who are coming to town ask me about where they should go. Also, as a volunteer at a free community clinic in the area for over 8 years, I met numerous homeless people living in shelters who were afraid of getting robbed, who felt like they had no privacy, who had bedbugs for months at a time, and who overall felt very unhappy and unhealthy in that situation. The landfill provides a place where members of our community can have a safe place to call home, and I believe that all people should have the opportunity to have a safe home.
katherine cody March 17, 2012 at 02:59 AM
I have been so worried. We hear and read so many negative things about our selves. Those seem to get the most attention. I was afraid that no one remembered all the fine things committed by us. Thankyou all for the good, positive, and supportive comments. You have lifted my spirits and the spirits of my neighbors. Kc
Paul Kamen March 17, 2012 at 08:32 AM
No way! You're not going to scare me away from my favorite blackberry bushes with a story about huge spiders!
Paul Kamen March 17, 2012 at 08:57 AM
Don't miss the trailer to the documentary about Dignity Village, pointed to by Patrick in another thread: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6n7rbKArAo&feature=youtu.be or http://tinyurl.com/6t65rer. But also check out the Dignity Village wikipedia page, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dignity_Village for more of the details.
Peggy McQuaid March 18, 2012 at 10:06 PM
Thank you, Andy for sharing your thoughts. The idea of creating a nonprofit corporation in Albany similar to Dignity Village is an intriguing one. The involvement by the residents in the development of such a program and shared responsibility for its sustainability could ensure its success. The video showed rules to be followed to live in the Village encouraging a harmonious and safe environment. I especially liked the idea that pets were welcome. The lack of provisions for animals is often a barrier for some people to seek traditional shelters I do not believe the bulb is the optimum location for this program due to the lack of sanitation facilities, electricity, and running water and would like to explore other feasible and realistic options in Albany. One factor in the success of a community like Dignity Village is proximity to social services or at least availability of transit to these services. The bulb has neither of these. The City of Albany has given tacit approval for anyone to live on their property, creating the potential for a wide variety of legal consequences. It would be far better to create a safe living situation, one which respects the needs of all parties. Although it will be impossible to find a solution that meets the needs of every individual impacted by homelessness, we must not let the desire for the perfect impede finding the best solution.
Peggy McQuaid March 18, 2012 at 10:07 PM
PART 2 I urge the subcommittee formed by the Waterfront and Social and Economic Justice Committees to consider all options as they address the issue of homelessness and to include a broad spectrum of professional experts and interested parties, especially those who are currently homeless, in their discussions. It is critical to identify the goal of the City’s policy on homelessness both short term or temporary and also to develop a long range plan. Solutions will take political will and numerous resources including financial and will require compromise and sacrifice. Albany considers itself to be progressive, sustainable, and smart. It is time to prove this to be true.
David Spataro March 19, 2012 at 02:03 PM
I haven't read all the comments but I especially want to echo Taal's sentiments about The Bulb. It is a place where people have had overwhelmingly positive experiences for decades and continue to do so today. Many of the negatives have been directly or indirectly a result of misguided government/police actions; people's possessions being taken by police, mass evictions, etc. Furthermore, due to individuals like Andy (and so many others that I do not know), there are strong connections between the various users of the space. In April 2009 I stayed out on the landfill for a couple days and one resident that I met talked extensively about the connections that she, as a dog owner, had made with a couple regular dog walkers. These kinds of stories are abundant and readily available. I now live on the east coast and have some friends who work with residents of encampments out on Long Island. These forested encampments have also been evicted, but then repopulated because people do not have any other options. Meanwhile, all the evictions accomplish is to destroy the very meager possessions and disrupt the solidarity, community, and self-determination that can and often do grow up in these spaces. I encourage the representatives of Albany to think hard about both the irreducible quality of human dignity and the utter need for governments to create creative, not destructive, interventions in a space so amazing as The Bulb.
liza minno bloom March 20, 2012 at 04:10 PM
This is a great article! I was taken to The Bulb as a visitor to the Bay Area and it was the most memorable and inspiring part of the trip. The place had a wonderful and friendly community feel, was beautiful, and had great outdoor art. What a treasure!
Veronica March 21, 2012 at 04:22 AM
I too just visited the landfill on a trip to the Bay and it was something I hope more and more people can witness, not just in the Bay but across the world. Where creativity, support, and community rise up organically. Where those who are often pushed to the perimeter are honored. Thank you to all who give to it.
Giovanni March 21, 2012 at 03:44 PM
I thought it was called Albany Acres.:)
Taal Levi March 22, 2012 at 07:51 PM
I'm just not sure why "comfortable" is so important. I have not heard of violent crime, or much crime at all at the Albany bulb. We live in an urban area with centers of crime and violence nearby, yet this place remains safe. Is it such a problem that some people are uncomfortable seeing homeless people? Let those people be uncomfortable if they choose to be. Perhaps one day they will not fear people just because they have no home.
Derek Bloom March 22, 2012 at 07:55 PM
The Bulb is reminiscent of what Berkley and the Bay area use to represent. It is a place of beauty. There is beauty in the people that live there along with the natural habitat. When I traveled cross the country from New York City, it was one of my favorite most inspiring places of the whole trip. Some say that another world is possible, a world filled with love, support and mutual empowerment. I say that world exists right now on the Bulb!
Derek Bloom March 22, 2012 at 07:58 PM
The Bulb is reminiscent of what Berkley and the Bay area use to represent. It is a place of beauty. There is beauty in the people that live there along with the natural habitat. When I traveled cross the country from New York City, the Bulb was my favorite and most inspiring place i'd been to during the whole trip. Some say that another world is possible, a world filled with love, support and mutual empowerment. I say that world exists right now on the Bulb!
Stephanie Pro March 25, 2012 at 06:58 PM
This is an excellent article, and I commend Mr. Kreamer for writing it. I have never personally been to the Albany Landfill Encampment so I cannot speak from personal experience. However, I can speak from the experience of someone who advocates for affordable housing on a daily basis. Mr. Kreamer is right--affordable and decent housing, whether temporary or permanent is extremely difficult to secure, and we cannot continue to shuffle people out of the way, because our system has failed them. Kudos to Mr. Kreamer for writing this article, and kudos to the Albany patch for publishing it!
thorn March 27, 2012 at 07:19 PM
a few realities that should be addressed- homeless people yelling "who are you and what are you doing here" at park visitors, which happens to me every time i take a smaller path through the Bulb. The ridiculous amount of trash the homeless import into their ever-expanding camps. The witch-hunt posse style justice that has groups of homeless accusing others of things like poisoning dogs, and then tearing down, setting fire to and otherwise running each other off. Yes, adding trash pickup and water would improve the situation= for about a week, and then the population would triple as people found out how improved it was, and you will have more fights over camp sites. The average person has no idea how many minor turf battles, and a few major ones have taken place out there after dark...
Paul D March 27, 2012 at 09:00 PM
To all those supporting the homeless infestation of Albany Bulb as a memorable and wonderful thing... park your car down there some Friday or Saturday night after oh say 10pm, leave your flashlight in the car and walk from one end of the Bulb to the other. Alone. And don't bother bringing your cellphone to call for help because in Albany they don't work so hot.

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