Recylced metal sculptures 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 sculptures 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)

An encampment of about 60 people at the Albany Bulb could be evicted in October as the city of Albany moves to turn it into part of the surrounding state park.

The Albany Bulb, an old landfill that juts out into the bay, has been called one of the Bay Area’s quirkiest destinations because of the artwork dotting its landscape of rebar and concrete. After the city stopped using the Bulb as a dump in the mid-1980s, homeless people moved onto the bulging peninsula, which features spectacular panoramic views.

Park advocates say incorporating the Albany Bulb into McLaughlin Eastshore State Park has been a nearly 30-year effort with wide public support.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have voted for it,” said Robert Cheasty, a former Albany mayor and president of Citizens for East Shore Parks – an umbrella organization pushing for the eviction and state park stewardship of the Bulb. “And millions have supported it.”

Earlier this month, the Albany City Council reaffirmed its May 6 decision to enforce the no-camping ordinance, starting in October. The city plans to transfer the land to the oversight of the East Bay Regional Park District, where it will become the centerpiece of the park.

Advocates for the encampment on the Bulb argue it is part of the local community, and that there should be better plans in place for the homeless after they are evicted.

“Apart from the incredible loss to the people who are living there and the threat to them and the fact that they’re going to lose their home, what all of us are going to lose is that model of coexistence, of an ecology that includes humanity in it,” said Osha Neumann, an East Bay attorney who has represented some Bulb residents. He doesn’t want the city to clear the camp without making sure the homeless have somewhere else to go.

The camp’s population has ebbed and flowed over the years. It reached a high point of around 60 in the late 1990s, when Albany enacted a no-camping ordinance and evicted Bulb residents in 1999.

Meanwhile, concerns about landfill-tainted drainage, or leachate, stalled the transfer to the park district. At some point, Albany stopped enforcing the no-camping ordinance, and tents and shacks again sprouted in the bushes.

The people who live on the Bulb don’t consider themselves homeless. Some claim to have resided there for more than 10 years, and the ones who say they’ve lived there for years consider it their home. Many say police found them sleeping on the street in Albany or Berkeley and encouraged them to move to the camp, but the cities dispute that would ever happen.

In May, Albany contracted nonprofit Berkeley Food and Housing Project for $60,000 — or about $1,000 per camp resident — to connect the people on the Bulb with services and, hopefully, new housing. The campers say they’ve talked to the outreach workers, but those with a little income from Social Security or other sources worry they won’t be able to afford a place to live that is as safe as the camp.

That’s Steve Courie’s situation. The 63-year-old blues musician says he’s getting too old to camp, and he’s too tired for a political fight. But he marched to the Albany City Council meeting on Sept. 3 with about 20 other Bulb residents anyway, hoping to convince council members to reverse their eviction plan.

“If we lose this, the ones that don’t make it into a house or whatever are going to end up sleeping in business doorways and stuff like that,” Courie said. “It’s not a pretty picture.”

The council voted 4-1 to have police begin enforcement of the no-camping ordinance sometime in October. Council members say letting the camp continue will only make the problem worse.

“This situation is not going to get better — it’s only going to get worse,” said Cheasty. “We can’t require that we solve all problems in our society before we have a park. It just doesn’t work that way. We have a shoreline park. No one’s allowed to privatize it.”

Some Albany residents say they’re afraid to go to the Bulb as long as the camp is there.

“I’m actually one of those people who used to go down there,” said Patricia Jones, executive director of Citizens for East Shore Parks, “but I wouldn’t go down there alone right now. We’re really looking for this to be a positive change — that these people will be helped and that the park will be returned to the rest of the people.”

Neumann doesn’t think Albany’s $60,000 effort will actually result in housing anybody and said the Bulb campers likely will be kicked to the streets in October.

“They don’t have a shelter, they don’t have a transitional house, they don’t have a single unit of low-income subsidized housing,” he said. “It’s taken years to create this situation. You can’t unravel it in three or six months at the beginning of winter, and they know that. And they don’t care.”

Housing in Albany is an additional layer to the controversy. The city is overdue in submitting an acceptable housing element of its general plan to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. State law now requires jurisdictions to have at least one zone allowing emergency shelters without a conditional use permit, and Albany’s current zoning only allows for conditional use. Conditional use means a prospective emergency shelter would have to go through an additional approval process, which is forbidden by state law.

Albany could contract with a neighboring city to fulfill its obligation. City officials say they are working on the plan. The city’s planning and zoning commission has scheduled a work session for the housing element of its general plan for Sept. 25 at 6:30 p.m.

Listen to the audio report:

  • Francesco Papalia

    Since at least 2006 there has been a substantial homeless encampments at the Albany Bulb in violation of the posted no camping ordinance. The Albany City Council, the City Manager, the City Attorney and the Director of Community Development were
    fully aware of the encampments. The Albany police department has regularly
    patrolled the area and following the direction from government officials has
    continuously permitted the encampments. In fact, for most of that time frame
    there was a specific police officer assigned as a liaison to that community.

    The city of Albany has had no staff person whose direct responsibility was to ensure that there was a viable program to assists the homeless. We have had no staff who could manage a budgeted program or who could seek out County, State and Federal monies to supplement our efforts. In fact, it appears that those available sources of
    monies were either diverted to programs for seniors or the handicapped or were
    lost because we did not have a program to use them.

    The Bulb has been our de facto or default Homeless Shelter because in an era of budget and staff cuts it was the least expensive way to address this issue. This Shadow Shelter was mostly hidden off the trails in small and mostly discreet camps until about two years ago. The camps have grown in number and scale so that now the City can no longer ignore the issue. As an Albany resident since 1987, I want the City to do our fair share to provide a safe clean shelter for the homeless and to fulfill our responsibility to provide affordable housing as part out our Housing Plan.

    • Albany Annie

      Mr. Papalia, your post seems designed to make yourself look good and others look bad – without really taking a position. Do you favor or oppose Albany resuming enforcement of the ordinance against camping in its parks ? And what do you mean about the ‘fair share’ – do you mean you want a homeless shelter in Albany, or do you want the people of Albany to contribute more to the shelters in Berkeley and elsewhere in Alameda county? And why is it a bad thing for housing funds to be spent on seniors and the disabled ?

      • Francesco Papalia

        My goal was to bring information to the issue that was missing in the article and to spark a discussion of the issues. You ask an excellent and the most difficult question: What is our Fair Share? I would first ask ABAG http://www.abag.ca.gov/ Association of Bay Area Governments to give us a number. They are the regional planners who have given Albany housing goals that we have ignored. I am acutely aware of how difficult it would be to find a good site it Albany because the real estate is so expensive, our town is so small and any site would bring neighborhood opposition. I would include Contra Costa County into the site search while including El Cerrito, Kensington, Berkeley and Emeryville into the fair share accounting. Then we could come up with a regional plan. If we agree that we should do our fair share, then that is a long term and expensive commitment. Whatever number that is used, some will say it is too many and others will say it is too few. Also, I did not imply that it was bad to use the housing funds on seniors and the disabled, they were just used to get money while ignoring the homeless/affordable housing issue.

      • Amber Whitson

        I can tell you that Francesco (along with anybody else in Albany who supports human rights) does NOT support the residents of the Albany Bulb being evicted *without* any alternatives being made available to them, *in* Albany. Or ANYWHERE, for that matter.
        Francesco has sat on Albany’s Waterfront Committee, for years, and has repeatedly called for the City, to provide its own homeless citizens with an alternative to sleeping on the Landfill. But his cries have fallen on deaf ears. There are people living on the Albany Bulb who are registered Albany voters, some of whom even grew up in Albany. But, the City has long had an unspoken, but clearly demonstrated, policy of avoiding their obligation, as an American city, to take care of its share of this country’s homeless population. All the while, watching its own homeless population increase. Now that they have decided to cleanse their economically less fortunate from their waterfront, it ill behooves them to also displace them from their town.

        • Lisa K

          A concern for the “environment” cannot be pursued with disregard for the human beings who are a vital part of this planet. It is incomprehensible for us to evict people from a park where our city has allowed them to live for years when there are no safe and realistic alternatives. A shelter is not a safe place for most people and the other alternatives for housing are in communities where many individuals do not feel safe. Being poor should not, although it often does, mean that you must live in danger. As a community, we have not met our responsibility to have adequate affordable housing. Our responsibility as citizens of the Bay Area. Until our community addresses our responsibilities to have at least an up to date housing element as part of our General plan , we cannot access funding for projects to actually help the environment through housing development near public transportation.

          The issue of the bulb is not a simple issue. As a long time Albany resident , I was saddened in May when people advocating for a quick turnover of the bulb to the East Shore park told the city council that they should evict people within 30 days. That betrayed a lack of any understanding of the struggles and complexities of being a low income, unhoused individual perhaps with disabilities in the Bay Area or anywhere. The residents of the bulb were not seen as human beings but rather as a “problem” to be handled.
          The term sanitize keeps coming to mind as I think about Albany’s plans as well as similar plans in other cities to remove encampments . In Harrisburg , PA, a church can no longer provide meals in a parking lot where they have done this for years. It is upsetting other residents. I hope our communities can become upset about the inequalities in our society and be propelled towards creating lasting solutions rather than sweeping people from our view . Then the “problem” will be out of sight out of mind..

          • Rochelle_Nason

            Lisa, what is the basis for your assertion that the homeless shelters that are open to Bulb residents are not safe places? And exactly which communities do you have in mind, that make people feel less safe than living in a homeless encampment? Is it fair to say to the working poor who live in those communities that we must devote more government resources to the Bulb campers so as to assure them places in the better neighborhoods they prefer – in effect, telling the working poor that their communities are just not good enough for housing the homeless? I can certainly understand the campers’ desire to get the best housing, in the best areas, that they can secure. But as an advocate for the homeless you would serve them better by being realistic, and helping to temper – rather than inflate – their expectations.

        • skeptic

          Sorry, Amber, but I don’t take any responsibility at all for taking care of you. Your drug addition is YOUR problem, not mine.

      • Francesco Papalia

        Albany Annie, my goal was to bring information to the discussion that I thought was missing. You do ask the very important and the most difficult question: What is our Fair Share? First, I would ask the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) to give us a number. ABAG is the regional planning group that gives each city the housing goals that we have ignored. Whatever number is finally used, some will say it is too low and probably more will say it too high. It will require a long term commitment and it will be expensive.

        I am acutely aware of the how difficult it would be to find a site in Albany because of the high cost of real estate, the small size of our town and the potential for neighborhood opposition. I would include Contra Costa County in the site search while including El Cerrito, Kensington, Berkeley and Emeryville in our shelter planning and cost sharing. This issue does not recognize city or county lines.

        Also, I did not imply that using funds for seniors and the disabled was bad, only that they were used to obtain funds that could have been used for the homeless while ignoring this problem.

  • Bougainvillae

    Berkeley (and San Francisco, too) does not allow campers to privatize the parks, because if we did we would, we would lose our much needed and much used public open space. Albany should certainly be encouraged to work towards solutions to homelessness, but Albany must be allowed to clear campers off the Albany Bulb, which is a much used, much loved and recently much avoided Public Park.

  • Francesco Papalia

    Sorry for the double post. This one did not appear for at least 30 minutes. I thought it may have been denied because of the live link I used for ABAG so I posted a second time.

  • Guest

    It is a truly awful situation out there . . .

  • Rochelle_Nason

    The article says that campers “worry they won’t be able to afford a place to live that is as safe as the camp.” Yet camper Amber Whitson publicly maintains that a young mother who died in her tent out there a few months ago was murdered (although the police seem to think her death was a suicide). The long record of publicly reported crimes on the Bulb include arson, threats, assaults, and dog attacks, which suggests we need to look closely at the campers’ assertion that the housing they are being offered is ‘not as safe’ as living in the encampments.

    The continuing growth of the population – from fewer than ten campers in 2007, to 50 when the Albany City Council made its decision in May of this year, to about 60 today, has turned the Bulb into something very different from what it was in 2007. It has too many people, too many guard dogs, and too many sprawling trash-strewn encampments. The Albany City Council was right to take action to find shelter for the campers and restore the park to public use.

    Albany is also doing the right thing by reexamining its housing element. It is not so clear that such a small city really needs to maintain its own bureaucracies for housing and homeless services – but perhaps it would be better served by a partnership with Berkeley than by relying on Alameda County as it does at present. In any case, those are longer term development issues – right now the question should be how to get the campers into housing before the rainy season begins in earnest in November. .

  • Robert Cheasty

    Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP) has worked for years to create a shoreline park along the East Bay. This has been a labor of love – to protect our shoreline and open it to the public. We did this for the entire community, helping to build a movement to get ballot measures passed, parcels acquired, habitat protected and recreational opportunities provided for the community as a whole. This movement focused the energies, talents and resources of major environmental organizations, numerous governmental entities and hundreds of thousands of people over three decades. No single project in the East Bay has more galvanized community support over so many years as this project to reclaim our shoreline for the public.

    This massive group effort created the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in 2002, stretching 8.5 miles from Oakland through Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany and into Richmond, unifying our shoreline for public access and enjoyment. We successfully fought many battles to prevent development that would privatize the shoreline. There is more to do, with parcels still to be protected and parcels still to be acquired, but the foundation of a shoreline park is established.

    Albany accomplished the first formal step in forging the Park. In 1985 the City of Albany signed a 66-year lease with the California Department of State Parks for the creation of a state park on the Bulb. This marked the most concrete step, up to that time, in piecing together the shoreline parcels. It is fitting that Albany played such a pivotal role as Albany sits in the center of the Park, with the Bulb perhaps the most
    spectacular section of the Park. The vistas from the Bulb are unsurpassed and the sense of being out in the Bay and out in nature is truly remarkable, especially given that this is nature reclaiming a landfill.

    The Bulb itself is incorporated into the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park General Plan and designated as an area for conservation. The purpose of the conservation
    designation is to enhance the protection of the flora and fauna there and to foster the experience people have in enjoying nature only a short distance from an urban area.

    Now, we are facing a crisis out on the Bulb. A significant number of people have been camping on the Bulb in violation of the Lease with the State of California, in violation of the uses allowed under the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park General Plan, in violation of the Water Board regulations and in violation of BCDC guidelines under state law.

    The Bulb is not set up for camping. It lacks sewer lines, lacks running water, has no bathroom facilities and no sanitation. Feces are scattered about and obviously this is creating a contamination issue for San Francisco Bay. The introduction of human waste is a health hazard and a contaminant for San Francisco Bay. This is not a healthy or a safe place for homeless people nor is a remote tent camp an acceptable solution for the homeless in America. We can do better for those in need.

    Equally problematic, there are a significant number of dogs wandering the Bulb off- leash with no human in sight and under no voice control. People report they now fear to go onto the Bulb. The presence of uncontrolled dogs is dangerous and against the rules of the Lease, the General Plan and state and municipal law.

    Fortunately Albany has hired Berkeley Food and Housing to work with each homeless person to find out the individual needs of that person, to get those in need into contact with the appropriate public agencies and social services that could assist them with: temporary housing and help them transition to long-term housing; with jobs and training; with physical and mental health services as needed; with substance abuse programs and counseling. The City has been active in its outreach and assistance to those in need.

    Regarding others who are simply using the Bulb as free camping for a temporary stay, the City will be reminding them of the acceptable and unacceptable uses of the Bulb, including displaying the hours of operation of the Bulb and the fact that no camping is allowed at the Bulb.

    The Bulb is a spectacular part of the Park with its majestic vistas and the feel of nature almost untamed. The entire community worked for years to create this open space and shoreline park for everyone’s enjoyment. All are welcome to come and visit and enjoy its specialness. Just remember to leave at closing time and no privatizing the place as your own.

  • Nadia

    I don’t recall any hand wringing on the part of the residents of Berkeley when the majority of these bums started finding their way into Albany. Do you?

    Dearest Berkeley, when are you going to come and reclaim your problem children? Or send child support?

  • Guest

    I think Osha Neumann’s point, as quoted in this article, is really crucial. We should not discuss the Bulb as a necessary evil, but as as a model of coexistence that we stand to lose. There are obviously problems with the Bulb, but the city of Albany could easily deal with some of those problems, without turning it into another uniform waterfront park.

  • TruthBeTold

    I was interested in understanding this issue a bit more so I created this short film to learn a bit about the residents currently living on the Bulb. https://vimeo.com/75180127

Author

Alex Emslie

Alex Emslie is a news reporter focused on criminal justice policy, policing and legal issues. He left Colorado and a career as a carpenter in 2008 to study journalism at community college in San Francisco. He then graduated from San Francisco State University's journalism program with a minor in criminal justice studies. Emslie contributed to several Bay Area newspapers and online news outlets before joining KQED in 2013. He loves multimedia reporting, publishing source documents and transparency. He can be reached at aemslie@kqed.org and followed via @SFNewsReporter.

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