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Albany Struggles with Homelessness at the Bulb, Faces Lawsuits

| January 2, 2014
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Recycled metal sculpture by Osha Neumann, an advocate for the residents living on the Albany Bulb, can be found on the north shore of the small peninsula. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

Recycled metal sculpture by Osha Neumann, an advocate for the residents living on the Albany Bulb, can be found on the north shore of the small peninsula. (Sara Bloomberg/KQED)

By Alex Emslie

Much of the attention over the housing crisis in the Bay Area falls on the most visual stories in larger cities, like the tech employee buses that have become icons for displacement in San Francisco and Oakland.

But cities on the outskirts of the metropolis are also running into conflicts over affordable housing, homelessness and the responsibilities of governments with smaller budgets.

Much of the attention over the housing crisis in the Bay Area falls on the most visual stories in larger cities.

Housing and homelessness are the subjects of two lawsuits against the City of Albany, a town at the northern tip of Alameda County with a population of less than 20,000. The city has been working for six months to evict a longstanding tent village on a chunk of land sticking into the East Bay called the Albany Bulb.

The land was formed as a construction materials dump, but since the early 1990s, it’s housed a camp of people who would otherwise be homeless. The Bulb is also the capstone in a three-decade effort to create the McLaughlin East Shore State Park, which would finally transfer control of the land from Albany to the state parks system.

City Plan

The city contracted with the nonprofit Berkeley Food and Housing Project in May to connect Bulb residents with services and help them find a place to live. The city hired Oakland-based Operation Dignity to open a temporary 30-bed shelter near the Bulb in late November. That part of the city’s park transition plan is costing more than $300,000 for six months of shelter.

“We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds,” City Councilman Michael Barnes said when the council voted to finally approve Albany’s park transition plan in October. “I think the plan we have is a good one. People will move a few hundred yards off the Bulb into trailers. They will be warm. They will be dry. There will be showers. They will have food supplied to them. They will have toiletries supplied to them. Their dogs will be there.”

So far, the shelters have not caught on with the Bulb residents. Only three to four people have been using them per night, according to the city.

Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s outreach has had some success, however. The nonprofit has connected four people with permanent housing since summer, although none of their apartments are in Albany.

Professional cook Bradley Anthony was the first Bulb resident to move into a permanent home though the effort. He had been living at the camp for about six months.

“Because I was employed, I knew it would be much easier for me,” he said outside his new home, a room in West Oakland. “It was pretty simple I guess, I mean comparatively speaking to what other people are going to be going through, I’m very lucky.”

Anthony said he moved to the Bulb last spring after he got laid off. Another job he had lined up took longer to come through than expected, and he couldn’t pay rent.

So he got in touch with his sister, April Anthony, who has lived at the Bulb for almost five years.

“I love it here, and I’m grateful for having been able to stay here,” April Anthony said. “As a single female homeless person, it beats the streets, there’s no doubt about it, and we have developed a community here, which is the last thing I thought I’d see. You know, but we’re all like a big family now. It’s kind of messed up that they’re going to break us apart.”

The Anthony siblings are two examples of the Bulb’s heterogeneous population. Bradley Anthony said he had never been homeless except for those recent six months. He said the process of getting into housing was pretty easy once outreach workers realized he had a full-time job.

“I was one of the few people that fit the criteria,” he said.

Anthony said he moved to the Bulb last spring after he got laid off.

April Anthony, however, meets the federal definition of chronic homelessness. She has a physical disability that makes it difficult for her to walk, and bi-polar disorder, and she’s lived outdoors for more than a year. Like many of the people living on the Bulb, she makes a few hundred dollars a month selling art and doing odd jobs.

“We don’t have guaranteed monthly income, and that’s been a major killer,” she said.

Coming to Grips

Albany realtor Francesco Papalia seems a little sheepish when he claims to have started the whole controversy, or at least the most recent round of it. He used his position as chair of Albany’s Waterfront Committee to form a homelessness task force in the city about a year and a half ago.

“If someone was homeless and fell down on the street or was sleeping in someone’s backyard, there was absolutely no one in the city whose job it was to help them,” he said.

The city council directed the task force to study the issue and present options for addressing homelessness in Albany, which is mostly concentrated at the Bulb. The task force delivered several options to the city in May, and the city council voted to pursue eviction under Albany’s “no-camping” ordinance with limited support services.

And at the same meeting, the council recommended task force members form an advocacy group, essentially dissolving it as a part of the city government.

“People were shocked,” Papalia said. “It was like, what just happened?”

Members of the task force did reorganize into an advocacy group, the Albany Housing Advocates, which is now suing the city in federal court.

A Federal Case

The Albany Housing Advocates, April Anthony and 28 other Bulb residents are suing the city to delay the eviction. The plaintiffs say physical or mental disabilities prevent them from using the city’s temporary shelter that opened in late November, and they should have more time to find permanent housing, preferably in Albany.

The lawsuit argues the city’s plan violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, and the 14th Amendment right to due process.

The suit says Albany plans to remove people from relative safety at the camp even though the city “does not have a single permanent shelter, transitional house, or available unit of subsidized housing.”

The Albany Housing Advocates and 29 Bulb residents are suing the city to delay the eviction.

Jennifer Wolch is the dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design. She gets a little frustrated when she hears cities are addressing homelessness through temporary means, whether it be short-term housing or portable shelters.

“Those kinds of solutions simply kick the can down the road,” she said. “That was the dominant solution in 1985 – build shelter beds. They don’t work very well. They keep people on this kind of cycle – street to shelter to jail to hospital that’s terrible for people and very expensive.”

Wolch has studied homelessness since the 1980s, and she has published research on homeless encampments in southern California. She said cities can best address homelessness through supportive housing, which combines an affordable, permanent place to live with on-site case workers and other services.

But Albany doesn’t have any supportive housing units. Alameda County has more than 2,000 units. Berkeley, Albany’s larger neighbor to the south, has more than 100 units of supportive housing.

Robert Cheasty was mayor of Albany in 1999, when the city last grappled with the camp at the Bulb. Now he advocates for the state park transfer.

“As a small city, you can’t have every possible service,” he said. “It’s just not feasible. So you rely on the county, you contribute to the county, or you partner with another city.”

Still, services for the homeless work better when they aren’t giant, centralized projects, according to Wolch.

“If Albany would acknowledge that they had about 50 people at any one time who needed services and needed shelter and needed long-term support, then there’s no reason that they couldn’t address that need,” she said. “And in fact, homelessness and homeless service provision and supportive housing is much better done on a small scale.”

The Housing Element

Affordable housing is the subject of another lawsuit concerning Albany’s obligations to the poor and homeless. This one is in Alameda County Superior Court.

State law requires all California cities and counties to plan for housing at all income levels. It’s called the housing element of the general plan, and their due approximately every seven years. Albany’s last approved plan was filed in 1992. The city turned in an updated draft for the 2007 to 2014 period in October – more than a little late.

That process has already spurred the city to remove restrictions on building a permanent emergency shelter, and the draft recommends doing something similar for transitional and supportive housing.

Deja Vu

This isn’t the first time the city has grappled with its homeless population. In fact, the present saga is a near duplicate of one in 1999, when Albany used the same contractor to build a temporary shelter near the Bulb and evicted the camp.

Berkeley Human Welfare Commissioner Dan McMullan lived at the camp in 1999. He lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident and spent about a decade homeless in Berkeley and Albany.

The present saga is a near duplicate of one at the Bulb back in 1999.

“The reason I was homeless was because I was disabled,” he said. “People that work with homeless people know, scratch any homeless person and you’ll find a disability. And they do nothing in Albany for people with disabilities who are homeless. And it’s amazing to me that after all these years, they’re going to try to pull the same move again.”

Albany Mayor Peggy Thomsen declined interview requests from KQED. Albany’s mayor is part of the city council, and she is the only current member who was also a councilmember 15 years ago.

“We did, I believe, have a humane relocation of the people at that time,” she said at a public meeting. “I personally went out to the Bulb to where the food was delivered into the portables. I would be happy to have lived in one myself. They were very, very clean.”

McMullan said his ideal solution would be to improve the lot of people at the Bulb, maybe with a transitional shelter there, including fresh water and working plumbing. That way, people could camp there until they found permanent housing.

Albany’s disbanded homelessness task force had a similar suggestion, which they called the dignity village model, based on a self-governing community in Portland.

But the city isn’t pursuing that plan, and the task force was concerned that building a dignity village at the Bulb might prolong people living in harsh conditions.

UC Berkeley’s Wolch described a similar, now closed Dome Village in Los Angeles.

“The challenge with those kinds of experiments is you want to make sure you’re not validating a model that says, ‘well people really don’t need housing’ — that it’s okay for people not to be provided with real housing,” she said. “It’s a slippery slope. As a society, do we want to give up on a goal that says people should have decent, safe, sanitary, conventional housing, whether they can earn enough to pay for it on the market or not?”

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Category: Housing

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  • tahoerochelle

    It makes perfect sense that people who live in Albany must do their share to address homelessness and housing needs more generally. But it does not make sense that people who live in Albany must do more than people in much wealthier communities in the region, nor does it make sense that every little town must have its own homeless bureaucracy to pursue grants from other levels of government. Scarce housing funds should not be burned up on miniature administrative bodies, nor on miniature housing projects whose location is chosen for symbolic or political purposes. Robert Cheasty is right that Albany – and every other small town in the East Bay – should contribute to broader efforts at either the county or regional level to supply adequate supportive housing (both permanent and transitional), and to fulfill other housing needs.

    • Amber Whitson

      This is from a Coldwell/Banker website:
      “Albany is a suburban community with a population of
      18,678. The median household income in Albany is $72,982.”

      From Albany Patch, by Ross Stapleton-Gray, on October 10, 2013 at 01:11 AM:

      “To satisfy my own curiosity, I did some number crunching.

      HUD estimates for homelessness include a “snapshot,” in January of 2012, of around 633,782 homeless persons (both sheltered and not), of whom 20.7 percent were in California (so, a much higher per capita rate than the national average… see “Mediterranean climate”); dividing the California count by 38M (state population estimate, 2012), and then multiplying that by 18,000 (a rough estimate of the Albany population) gives a count of 62. 

      A reasonable question might then be, “Are we, as Albany, devoting enough resources to the problem of homelessness to cover 62 individuals, wherever they might be sheltered, or otherwise supported?” 

      A better question would incorporate more complexities, e.g., is it reasonable for California to be a net *national* haven? (should federal transfers help to defray homelessness here, in proportion?); how do the Albanian mean incomes compare to those of other California cities?; what do Albanians already pay for, in what’s paid in state and federal taxes?; etc., etc”

      How poor IS Albany?
      The same town that misspent $10,000-$15,000 that is given to them, by HUD, for the purpose of assisting their poorest residents…

      Everyone who lives here was homeless before we came here.

      And, two of the four individuals, housed by Albany’s ProjectHOPE, are already living on the Bulb, again.

      This is a complicated issue, no doubt.
      Albany would benefit from expending effort and funding on real assistance (or, better yet, the proposal that I presented that would involve residents of the Bulb moving into a live/work situation…) as opposed to renewing their contract with BFHP, as they plan to, at the end of this month.
      BFHP has received $60,000+, to house two Bulb residents in 6 months; not return the calls of residents who were trying to work with them; and to shove a couple who has spent over 30 years on the streets (much of it at the Landfill) into a living situation that was doomed to fail and then provide them with 0 support, when things got bad.

  • Root

    The Bulb has a lot of value as it is. It provides the basis for a community of 50 people. Most of them are there because they have nowhere else to go. The City should do no harm to this unique community. The City has actually rejected plans the residents and community members put forward to them which cost the same amount of money they have spent on those trailers. Not a cent more. It was called the Housing Subsity Alternate Plan, and not one member of the City Council voted for it despite many calls from citizens.

    So, it’s actually that the City doesn’t listen to good ideas about how to support these people. Rather than trying to criminalize these people for simply existing in public space (civil rights!), the City should listen to what folks actually do need or want. Why is Michael Barnes so out of touch with the reality of the trailers?

    The so called “environmentalists” supporting this should be ashamed of themselves. They are harming the environmental movement through their support of abuse of peoples’ civil rights.

    • Full Melt

      I used to hike out there, nowadays it is a trash infested dump with human feces everywhere along the waterfront. Dogs menace people as they walk by the homeless camps. GET RID OF ALL THE LOSERS

  • tahoerochelle

    There was a very good reason that not a single City Council member voted for the so-called “Housing Subsidy Alternate Plan” that Root mentions. It appeared to everyone involved to be a last-minute stall tactic rather than a serious plan. It did not address the fundamental legal problem of how to handle newcomers, which had been the stumbling block to those us advocating for alternative approaches for months. I wish more had been done to try to work these issues through collaboratively (and I tried as a citizen activist to make that happen). It is true that the city made mistakes early on that hampered the exlploration of altenatives, first getting mixed-up legal advice, and then not giving the community enough time to understand the financial implications of creating and running the emergency homeless shelter. But given that the homeless activists and their lawyers never showed any interest in possible alternatives until the last minute, and then presented a ‘Plan’ that failed to address the key issues, just reinforced the impression that the Bulb campers had no interest in anything but staying camped in the park indefinitely. Allowing the situation to continue is something the City Council obviously could not permit for basic health and safety reasons, and it did what it had to do under the circumstances. Blaming the local environmental community for speaking up for the park is just beside the point.

  • AlbanyGordon

    I understand that you can discern the accuracy of a media source by studying a report on a subject with which you are personally involved. As a member of Albany’s Waterfront Committee, a former member of the Homeless Task Force, and a board member of Albany Housing Advocates I can attest to the accuracy and integrity of Alex Emslie’s journalism. (Note: I am only speaking for myself here.) Only one important point was missed in this report, however: that of the impetus for the Albany City Council’s actions last May when they disbanded the Homeless Task Force and approved the Task Force’s consensus “worst case option,” i.e., “limited support services and enforcement of the no-camping ordinance.” This option was chosen under intense pressure from so-called “park advocates” who organized a pseudo-environmentalist campaign to “Save the Albany Bulb.” This campaign was masterminded by Citizens for Eastshore State Park (CESP), of whom “former mayor” Robert Cheasty is the President and “tahoerochelle,” commenting above, is a board member and an apparent or de facto spokesperson. (It is interesting that “tahoerochelle” does not identify herself as such. It is also interesting that Robert Cheasty identifies himself as a “former mayor” of Albany, when the mayor of Albany is the rotating chair of the City Council, i.e., not directly elected as mayor. Many people in Albany are “former mayors,” but only Mr. Cheasty consistently identifies himself as such, and he was mayor for only one year, 25 years ago.)

    There is a long history of “environmentalists” apparently being blind to the human ramifications of their purist inclinations. Recall the Sierra Club’s stand against immigration into California and read the most recent New Yorker magazine on the self-righteous post-hoc criticism of poor rural people who contributed to the extinction of the passenger pigeon in their quest for food during the financially troubled 1870’s.

    Here, the “park advocates” claim that poor, often mentally ill homeless people have “privatized” (an Orwellian misappropriation of that term) the former Albany landfill in defiance of the consensus that the landfill should eventually become a part of McLaughlin Eastshore State Park. At the City Council meeting last May, when the Council was supposed to consider options to deal with homelessness throughout the city, these park advocates, in a “call out the troops” action, uniformly called for a 45-day eviction notice of the residents of the Bulb. This seems to have been carefully orchestrated to allow the City Council to appear magnanimous when it then voted for a 120-day eviction notice (and did nothing else to address homelessness elsewhere in town).

    CESP was an originally a well-meaning grass-roots organization that resisted filling of the Bay and excessive commercial development of our waterfront. Having won that battle, they have now engaged in a cynical fight to keep the rubble of the Albany Bulb free from unpleasant poor people who disturb their dog-walking, apparently having no other issues to fight for.

    “Tahoerochelle” attended the meetings of the Homeless Task Force and when she saw that we weren’t heading for the “evict them now and ask questions later” option she dutifully reported back to CESP, who then unleashed the pressure campaign on the City Council. And how could they exert this pressure? Because they “own” at least two of the council members and could call in old chits with the likes of former Berkeley mayor Shirley Dean (oh, how her legacy has been tarnished). I know this because I (now, regrettably) helped CESP elect these two council members, back when it was fighting development. CESP, the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter, and Citizens for Albany Shoreline together are the “machine” in Albany politics and I believe this has gone to their heads; they have lost touch with true progressive values.

    The simple truth is that the “homeless” encampment on the Bulb (they consider themselves as having homes) is the result of a long-term willful ignorance, and even encouragement, of the situation on the part of City officials, going back at least 15 years. Police officers from local jurisdictions have been reported to direct homeless people there for years. To suddenly pull the rug out from individuals who have had a relatively stable housing situation out there defies all common sense and humanitarian standards. These people will now have little choice but to sleep on the streets of Berkeley, Albany, and El Cerrito without the supportive community that they enjoyed on the Bulb. It is telling that the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, supposed experts in this process, could only house 4 out of the estimated 60 individuals living on the Bulb after 8 months and $60,000.

    We all agree that individuals should not have to camp on an abandoned landfill as their only housing option. Where we homeless activists differ from CESP and their City Council puppets is in the timing and process for this transition. In this era of an extreme affordable housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area, the ruthlessly fast eviction of “houseless” individuals from a stable situation in the name of a future refuge for urban recreation is shameful and counter-productive, and I believe it does not represent the sensibilities of the majority of Albanians or members of the wider Bay Area community.

    • tahoerochelle

      This process is ‘ruthlessly fast’ ? Really? Eight months have passed since the City Council’s unanimous action. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on ‘outreach’, an emergency homeless shelter, and a housing fund, all in an effort to persuade the campers to leave voluntarily and to offer them a safe clean heated shelter with meals, and a place to keep their dogs, while they work with social services on their next steps in life. In response, the campers have recruited seventeen lawyers of record (!) to serially sue the city, asserting their ‘rights’ to live on public parkland, in order to defer their departure as long as they can. How long, Gordon, do you want to see people living in this supposedly ‘stable situation’, many with untreated mental illnesses and addictions, and all of them without running water or disposal facilities for human waste, isolated from public transportation and social services ? And why is it so terrible for conservationists to oppose this use of scarce public parkland along the shoreline? True progressive values do NOT require the sacrifice of parks to enable the encampment lifestyle – especially when more reasonable alternatives are achievable with the resources on offer.

      • AlbanyGordon

        45 days, Rochelle. 45 days. That’s what you wanted. The cops would have cleared them out by last June 20 if you had gotten your way.
        Go back and read the Sierra Club charter, the part about how you are supposed “to promote sustainable development, social justice, and human rights.”
        What’s out there is preferable to what you want: simply getting them out of your sight.

        • tahoerochelle

          That is just not true Gordon, and you know it. Although there were people calling for 45 days (rather than the 72 hours that is typical for Bay Area encampment clearances), I supported the five months that the staff proposed. And that was only after doing my best to persuade you and the rest of the task force to recommend a phased-transition concept that would have allowed people much more time to secure appropriate shelter. You all were just too fixated on keeping people on the Bulb indefinitely to look at realistic proposals for constructive change. I did everything I could to warn everyone that the deteriorating health and safety conditions on the Bulb were going to force the city to act. Don’t lie now about my position then because you don’t like the consequences of your own conduct.

          • AlbanyGordon

            You are right Rochelle, I apologize. It was all the other CESP members that promoted the 45 day eviction. You were more reasonable in your early proposals and I overlooked that in my over-quick response. Lots of other points to make, but you’ve heard them all by now and I doubt anyone else cares to read them here. See you down the road.

          • tahoerochelle

            Thank you, Gordon, apology accepted. A sad part of this whole thing is that people who don’t really disagree about the social policy – that folks who are unable to care for themselves properly should get shelter and care appropriate to their situation, and that the waterfront park should be accessible to the public – are at each others’ throats because no collaborative solutions were ever developed (not even tried). You blame park advocates, I blame the Homeless Task Force, the lawyers for the campers blame the City Council, and so forth. Maybe we could still look for solutions that would be worthy of broad support? Just a thought.

  • Amber Whitson

    This is from a Coldwell/Banker website:
    “Albany is a suburban community with a population of
    18,678. The median household income in Albany is $72,982.”

    From Albany Patch, by Ross Stapleton-Gray, on October 10, 2013 at 01:11 AM:

    “To satisfy my own curiosity, I did some number crunching.

    HUD estimates for homelessness include a “snapshot,” in January of 2012, of around 633,782 homeless persons (both sheltered and not), of whom 20.7 percent were in California (so, a much higher per capita rate than the national average… see “Mediterranean climate”); dividing the California count by 38M (state population estimate, 2012), and then multiplying that by 18,000 (a rough estimate of the Albany population) gives a count of 62.

    A reasonable question might then be, “Are we, as Albany, devoting enough resources to the problem of homelessness to cover 62 individuals, wherever they might be sheltered, or otherwise supported?”

    A better question would incorporate more complexities, e.g., is it reasonable for California to be a net *national* haven? (should federal transfers help to defray homelessness here, in proportion?); how do the Albanian mean incomes compare to those of other California cities?; what do Albanians already pay for, in what’s paid in state and federal taxes?; etc., etc”

    How poor IS Albany?
    The same town that misspent $10,000-$15,000 that is given to them, by HUD, for the purpose of assisting their poorest residents…

    Everyone who lives here was homeless before we came here.

    And, two of the four individuals, housed by Albany’s ProjectHOPE, are already living on the Bulb, again.

    This is a complicated issue, no doubt.
    Albany would benefit from expending effort and funding on real assistance (or, better yet, the proposal that I presented that would involve residents of the Bulb moving into a live/work situation…) as opposed to renewing their contract with BFHP, as they plan to, at the end of this month.
    BFHP has received $60,000+, to house two Bulb residents in 6 months; not return the calls of residents who were trying to work with them; and to shove a couple who has spent over 30 years on the streets (much of it at the Landfill) into a living situation that was doomed to fail and then provide them with 0 support, when things got bad.