Two Stories from the August Street Spirit

NOTES BY NORSE:  Street Spirit is a monthly homeless newspaper published by the American Friends Service Committee in the Bay Area to provide an alternative to panhandling for homeless or near-homeless vendors as well as an alternate source of news and opinion.  Those wanting to distribute it or sell it can get copies at the Sub Rosa Cafe at 703 Pacific or from HUFF (Homeless United for Friendship & Freedom) at its weekly meeting (Wednesdays 2 PM, Sub Rosa) or by calling 831-423-4833.Santa Cruz has cracked down recently on vending artwork and services on the street in violation of the White v. City of Sparks ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ( ), and a local understanding reached several years ago between Robin–an artist selling his work on the street–and John Barisone, the City Attorney–who acknowledged police would be violating the Constitution if they continued harassing him.  A costly settlement only awaits one of the city’s over-eager newbie cops or security thugs and then some lawyer with itchy pockets.

New anti-homeless hysteria is being generated by groups like Take Back Santa Cruz [TBSC], and the Santa Cruz Neighbors, and supported by the Bryant City Council, the Bernal City Management Team, and the “Public Safety” Citizens Task Force (more aptly termed the “Public Hysteria Mayor’s Task Farce”).  The Farce meets every other Wednesday at the Police Station Community Room (natcherally) 6-9 PM.  Its next meeting is August 7.  When reminded to do so, city staff puts its minutes, staff reports, agendas on line–though still no sign of the audio (at ).  Public Comment is usually barred.  The “crimes” focused on are homeless survival camping, drug and alcohol use, and the “disturbing” presence of homeless people in the sacred commercial and residential public spaces.  Also to be spotlighted: the “enabling” menace of free food and other services (with the Homeless (Lack of) Services Center’s Monica Martinez lining up to support ID programs and a “security gate”), and other NIMBY-generated issues.

Real violent crime is not the focus.  Nor, of course, the continuing hate crime policies of destroying homeless property, harassing vulnerable homeless people, and prosecuting them for life-sustaining behavior like sleeping or  previously First Amendment-protected activity like petitioning and protesting.

Recent exposure of the reactionary views of Steve Schlitt of the Task Farce ( ) showing the rotten underbelly of the TBSC-inspired group is no surprise, considering the leaders of the group are a Seaside Company flak (Reyes) & a notorious anti-homeless cop (Howes).  The only novelty is the candor with which the group and those backing it express their anti-homeless bigotry.  It’s been traditional to mouth pro-homeless pieties while passing anti-homeless legislation and backing police seizure of homeless property, the Sleeping Ban, the Sitting Ban, the Tabling Ban, the Move-Along Law, the Curfews, etc.  (e.g. Don Lane and Micah Posner).

Santa Cruz Street Spirit  stories (from a decade or more previously) are archived on the HUFF website at  where prior reports by the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty and the Albany homeless  can be found.

More and more cities across the country are criminalizing homelessness by outlawing sitting and lying on sidewalks, panhandling, sleeping outdoors and other essential, life-sustaining acts. In order to protect homeless people from discrimination, lawmakers in Connecticut and Illinois are following Rhode Island’s lead in passing Homeless Bills of Rights.

by The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty

While cities across the nation consider and pass laws against panhandling, sitting or lying in public places, and other measures which criminalize homelessness, lawmakers in Connecticut and Illinois are following Rhode Island’s lead in passing legislation to protect homeless individuals from discrimination.

On June 5, Connecticut lawmakers passed the “Homeless Person’s Bill of Rights,” which protects homeless persons from discrimination in housing, employment, and government services. Connecticut is the third state to pass such a bill in the state legislature, after Illinois, which passed a similar bill on May 28. Both bills are modeled on Rhode Island’s landmark legislation, which passed and became law in June 2012.

The Law Center’s civil rights director Heather Maria Johnson and policy director Jeremy Rosen played a leading role in drafting and promoting that law with the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless, the Rhode Island Homeless Advocacy Project, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Rhode Island.

“The bills are a counterpoint to a disturbing national trend,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director and founder of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “Our recent report, Criminalizing Crisis, found that, despite a lack of affordable housing and shelter space, cities across the country are criminalizing homelessness by passing laws that outlaw life-sustaining acts, such as eating and sleeping, in public spaces.”

Last year, Johnson called Rhode Island’s measure historic and said she hoped that advocates around the country would work to pass similar laws. Now, lawmakers in Oregon, Vermont, and Missouri are considering bills similar to Rhode Island’s, and the full California Assembly will vote on AB 5, the “Homeless Persons’ Bill of Rights and Fairness Act,” in January 2014.
Johnson is gratified by this progress in gaining legal recognition for the human rights of homeless people, especially in light of the recent wave of laws that discriminate against homeless persons or attempt to banish them from public spaces.

A homeless woman on the streets of San Francisco sits on a blanket and holds her teddy bear. Robert L. Terrell photo

“Rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness, many cities are instead passing laws that violate homeless persons’ civil and human rights and make it harder for them to secure employment, shelter and benefits,” she said. “The movement of Homeless Bills of Rights spreading across the country combats this trend by protecting homeless persons from discrimination.”

The Connecticut bill is awaiting signature from Governor Dan Malloy (D) before its scheduled enactment date on October 1, 2013. Similarly, Illinois’ Homeless Bill of Rights is awaiting signature from Governor Pat Quinn (D). Both bills forbid governments, police, healthcare workers, landlords or other employers from treating homeless people unfairly because of their housing status.

This fall, the Law Center will be releasing a report detailing the trend of Homeless Bill of Rights and providing guidance to advocates interested in pursuing a similar proactive strategy in their own states.

Despite their efforts to keep the land green, homeless people once again face eviction from the Albany Bulb. Advocates argue that Albany officials cannot evict the homeless encampment without providing alternative shelter. Yet, for the past 15 years, Albany has had no homeless shelters at all for its unsheltered citizens.
Creative artworks dot the landscape at the Albany Bulb. Two sculptures sit side by side, looking for all the world like old friends sharing a bench on a sunny day. Lydia Gans photo

by Lydia Gans

The Albany Bulb is a landfill peninsula located along the east shore of the San Francisco Bay, at the end of a strip of land jutting out from Buchanan Street past the nearby racetrack. It has been a source of controversy ever since contractors started dumping construction debris there in 1963.

After the dumping was stopped in 1987, soil accumulated and plants began to take root. The land belongs to the city of Albany by virtue of its location, but over the years, it appears to have been more of a problem for the city than an asset. The only individuals who regularly used it are homeless people, camp dwellers, a small group of artists and off-leash dogs.

In June, the Albany City Council voted to begin transferring the land over to the California State Park system. It will be a long and complicated process involving the park system and East Bay Regional Park administrators, as well as many other interested parties.

Transferring this land will involve the difficult and painful issue of providing for some 55 people who have long been camped at the Albany Bulb and will be made homeless. Officials have set October 2013 as a time to begin evictions. They agreed on a $30,000 contract with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project for a Homeless Outreach and Engagement Program to connect with the campers. That program is beginning to operate.

A little bit of past history will give an idea of the problems that lie ahead. In 1985, Albany city officials signed a lease agreement with state parks but nothing ever came of it. There are specific rules for state parks. Camping is not permitted, any structures or artworks are not permitted, nor are off-leash dogs.

Then, in the 1990s, homeless people began moving onto the Albany Bulb. They set up tents and built simple structures and a homeless community was born. Artists constructed fantastic paintings and sculptures from scrap materials. One longtime camper, Jimbow, even set up a lending library in his shack before the 1999 evictions, and it has been going ever since, totally on the honor system.

Before the state can take over the land, everything will have to be removed. The removal of the rebar, concrete and other solid waste is also an issue. The campers, too, have to be permanently banished.

Amber Whitson has lived at the Albany Bulb since 2006. She knows everyone and keeps track of what goes on in the camp. Amber has done extensive work in clean-up, trash removal, trail maintenance and natural restoration of the Albany landfill. Lydia Gans photo

In 1999, Albany officials tried to evict the homeless encampment. That effort was a disaster. They ordered the campers to move out, and campsites were bulldozed. Osha Neumann, an attorney who also created some of the artworks on the Bulb, came to the defense of the campers, pointing out to city officials that they could not evict the homeless occupants without providing alternative shelter. Yet Albany had no homeless shelters at all in 1999 (even today, 14 years later, it still has no shelters for its unhoused citizens).

Exiling the homeless campers to Berkeley was not an acceptable alternative. So Albany officials contracted with an agency, Operation Dignity, to bring in a trailer to provide temporary shelter. But all the city’s promises to find permanent housing went unfulfilled.

In the years following this mass eviction of camp dwellers in 1999, the Albany Bulb was reoccupied. Word was out and homeless folks, wanderers and people just looking to party drifted in and out. But a core of people made the Bulb their home.

Chet and his cat enjoy a sunny day at the encampment. This is the only home Chet has had for many years. Lydia Gans photo

The city appeared to have neither the will nor the resources to take any interest. Occasionally, the police patrolled the landfill; but more often, the police actually told homeless people they encountered on city streets to move out to the Bulb.
Amber Whitson has lived at the Bulb since 2006. In an interview, she described the accomplishments of the Bulb’s residents since they moved here — or were told to move here by the police.

“Wider site trails have been created,” Whitson said. “We’ve been doing maintenance on them. We do trash pickup, we’ve done cleanup of abandoned camps, shoreline cleanup. In 2007, people who lived out here helped take care of oiled birds during the Cosco Busan oil spill. We’ve done metal and re-bar hazard mitigation, and we were the first to respond to the fire in the castle set by kids from the town.”

A giant sculpture on the shore of the Albany landfill peninsula seems to appeal to the heavens for justice on behalf of the Albany Bulb’s homeless residents. Lydia Gans photo

Even as city officials blame the campers as unwanted nuisances, Whitson sets the record straight by describing the many socially responsible things that unhoused people have undertaken at the Bulb.
“We created a freebox out here,” she said. “We arranged for pickup of the shopping carts ourselves without help from the city. We planted fruit trees out here, and we built and do our best to maintain the castle which was finished in ‘99 and the library — both of which are not only local treasures, but are also major tourist attractions.
“In 1999, the day before the threatened eviction date, one of the people who lived out here rescued a guy out of the water. And out of the four people who showed up for the cove-enhancement volunteer work that the city is doing, three of the four were people from out here, and only one person was a resident of the city of Albany. We jump when they want us to jump, we reach out and help.”

A longtime camper, Jimbow, set up a lending library in his shack at the Albany landfill before the 1999 evictions, and it has been going ever since, totally on the honor system. Lydia Gans photo

In spite of all this, city officials apparently have not seen fit to communicate directly with the campers. Nor is it clear what consideration, if any, they are giving to a very extensive report from the Homeless Task Force on “Options for Ending Homelessness in Albany.”

Several of the campers representing the homeless community regularly attend and participate in Task Force meetings and have high praise for the Task Force members and their work. Various agencies and friends have been supporting the campers for some time. Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless comes out regularly to offer health services. The Homeless Action Center helps people apply for benefits, and the East Bay Community Law Center also offers help to landfill residents. Some folks from a local church bring pizza once a week, while others bring food or help haul in water.

The campers themselves are organizing, getting together from time to time for community meetings and to work on maintenance and improvements on the Bulb. They are concerned about metal scavengers and outsiders who come just to party and have on occasion set fires or done serious damage. The campers are hoping to smooth out the road where there is rebar and concrete jutting out.

The encampment at the Albany Bulb consists of tents and homemade shacks scattered among the trees and bushes.

Camp dwellers also are trying to keep informed on the actions the City of Albany will take affecting them. To prepare for questions from agencies or interested parties, Amber Whitson carried out a needs assessment and demographic survey of the 55 campers for whom the Bulb is home. She cites the findings of this survey, explaining that 21 people living at the Bulb have been homeless for a year or more, 23 are disabled, at least 13 want a job, 34 are “actively interested in housing,” 21 have pets, 25 have an income, and 21 have no income at all.

Whitson’s survey reveals the needs of the campers and casts new light on the potential to obtain housing for people who will be displaced from their current residence at the Bulb. Whitson is now in the process of meeting with workers from the Food Project to provide them with the information she has collected.

Though the Albany City Council has announced an October date for enforcing the no camping rule, it is clear that actually making it happen may not be possible. Neumann points out, “It has taken many years to bring about this situation and it’s not going to get resolved over night. And they will not find placements for the people there all at once.”

He adds, “Apart from constitutional issues, I think there are people who are concerned on a human level with what is going to happen to people. They have some level of responsibility. They permitted and in some cases encouraged people to go out there. So now all of a sudden to close it down is not fair — not the right thing to do. I think people care.”