The members of the City Council deserve our thanks for reaffirming their decision, originally taken in May, to resume enforcement of the City’s anti-camping ordinance in October. They also deserve our sympathy: they ran for office to serve their community and help people, and they have had to make a heart-rending decision.
But when a problem is growing, as the Bulb’s large homeless encampments are growing, waiting to take action makes no sense, because more time just means more people impacted by the action. The Council has done the most compassionate thing, as well as exercising courage and common sense, in offering help to the campers to find housing, but also refusing to allow the deterioration at the Bulb to continue.
At the hearing on this issue, some speakers appealed for ‘more time’ for the homeless encampments. Some suggested that Albany should stop the growth by prohibiting new campers from moving in, while helping the current ones find housing, and eliminate sites gradually through a phased transition. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it ?
However, this path was explored with care, and rejected, as a part of Albany’s Homeless Task Force process. The reasons were: unacceptability to the campers and their advocates, illegality, and impracticality.
How do I know about this ? Because I was the advocate for this approach in that process. I have changed my views. Now, despite my sympathy for the campers, I support the City’s policy of resuming enforcement of the anti-camping ordinances next month.
Why the change of perspective? First and foremost, the campers and their advocates that composed the Homeless Task Force rejected the phased-transition approach (although they did list it among the ‘options’ they provided to the City Council). The rationale was that such a transition plan would be contrary to the campers’ objectives. Those objectives are to stay on the Bulb as long as they can, and if possible ultimately to develop a transitional-housing ‘village’ for themselves there.
A phased transition cannot possibly succeed without ‘buy-in’ from the campers. Each camper must choose his or her own living accommodations (unless a conservator takes charge of an individual) . So there is no way around the fact that each person must be motivated to make a move, whether to permanent housing, transitional housing, a homeless shelter, a rehab facility, or just to a healthier encampment site offering running water and sanitary facilities.
The sympathetic observer might ask: well, wouldn’t the campers become motivated to move if they were offered subsidized housing ? Unfortunately, it appears that there is no realistic scenario in which a sufficiently motivating offer can be made. Alameda County has a variety of subsidized housing options, including complexes, Section 8 vouchers, and a homeless assistance program called Shelter Plus Care. But it is critical to understand that subsidized housing is not free housing: all these programs require the recipient to pay 30-40% of income towards rent. By contrast, camping on the Bulb is free.
Consider the case of a camper living near poverty level on SSI and sales of Street Spirit, with a monthly income of roughly $1,000, who pays nothing to live at the Bulb. To secure market rate housing, she would have to ‘double up’ with a partner or roommate. The pair would likely have to rent a room, and each would need to devote approximately $400 – or 40% of income – to live in or around Albany.
What if Section 8 could be provided to every camper? Each would still have to pay at least $300, and up to $400 per month. Their options would be much better – for example, the pair could get their own small apartment, rather than a room. But the $100 cash advantage offered by Section 8 would not significantly alter the disincentive to enter housing. That disincentive is giving up a huge percentage – whether 30% or 40% - of income.
We are probably all familiar with how household budgets expand to consume the money available. Try to imagine cutting back your own household expenses by one third. Consider what such a cut would mean to a very low-income person who is used to spending all his income each month.
The sad reality is that even if Albany could somehow come up with enough subsidized housing for all the campers, and even if it could somehow ‘leapfrog’ them ahead of the many others ahead of them in line, it would still have to resume its anti-camping ordinances to motivate people to move.
Some may argue that even so, we can all feel better about resuming enforcement of the ordinances if everyone has first been offered subsidized housing, even if they have not accepted it. So perhaps we should implement a phased transition for the sake of our own feelings, even if the program benefits few if any campers, who must each walk their own path in life and make their own choices.
This brings us to another barrier to a phased transition: its illegality. The Constitution protects a ‘right to travel’ which bars a jurisdiction from selectively enforcing laws – like Albany’s anti-camping ordinance – against newcomers only. The ‘phased transition’ approach violates this principle, established when California was trying to bar ‘Okies’ fleeing the Dust Bowl. Perhaps the City could find a way around this legal barrier, but it is taking a cautious approach on the issue.
So what if the lawyers for the campers take action, and drag the City into court ? Could a court order a phased transition ? This was recently tried elsewhere – with unhappy results. A city called Lakewood, located in Ocean County, New Jersey, is the unwilling host to a tent city on its public lands, which it has been trying for many years to evict. Ocean County does not have a single homeless shelter (by contrast to Alameda County, which provides Albany’s homeless services, and offers an array of shelter and services to help the homeless.)
The ACLU brought suit to block Tent City’s eviction, and in light of Ocean County’s lack of a homeless shelter, the City of Lakewood negotiated an agreement with the campers, which was approved by the court. The agreement provided for a phased transition: newcomers would be kept out, and campers would be offered housing as it became available. Campers could accept or decline the offer of housing, but in either case they would have to then move out.
Unfortunately, the Tent City agreement has been a failure. Campers have continued to move in – the agreement’s provisions against new campers have apparently proven unenforceable. Fires and violence have recently plagued Tent City. Advocates for the campers have not devoted themselves to helping the campers find housing, but instead have geared up a new campaign for a permanent encampment.
What can we conclude ? The ‘phased transition’ idea is not practical. There is really no solution to the problem of encampments that will work without the active cooperation of the campers themselves, as it is they who must decide where they will live. As long as encampment living remains free, while housing – even subsidized housing – consumes a large percentage of income, tent cities and the agitation for them will continue (as is happening in many places across the country). As long as the ‘right to travel’ requires Albany to keep the Bulb encampments open to newcomers, its encampments will just continue to grow and grow.
The campers should be viewed with compassion and offered help. Many are unfortunate and vulnerable people. It is hard on anyone to leave a rent-free place where they have been comfortably settled; it is particularly hard on a person who is physically or mentally ill, or elderly or disabled, to be required to move.
Is there anything that can make this situation any better, if more time is not the answer? Here is a suggestion: if homeless advocates would establish a coalition with others who care about and are willing to pitch in for the campers – faith organizations, service clubs, and so forth – surely a meaningful effort could be assembled to do some real good.
Financial donations could be solicited to help campers prepare for and implement their transitions. In-kind donations of furnishings may also be helpful and would surely be forthcoming. Foster homes for pets could assure that if a camper must go into shelter where a pet cannot follow, the pet will be cared and remain theirs until they can be reunited.
A successful effort would depend on the campers and their advocates accepting that the Albany Waterfront Park will be returned to its rightful owners – the people of our city - and operated for the benefit of all. Supporters of the City of Albany, and park advocates, would in turn, need to accept that there is a moral imperative to help the advocates for the homeless and their coalition help the campers with their transitions.
Our shared objective would be to assure that the campers have what they need to make the best moves they can. Their dignity, property, and family relationships (including pets) would be respected. Working together, we could help the campers move out of the isolated, overcrowded, and under-served encampments - into living conditions that offer access to services to improve their physical and mental health, at least for those who are interested.
Homeless advocates, is there anything here we might be able to agree on?