Albany, CA homeless EVICTED from landfill squat: California, USA

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 1 Jun 1999 20:10:59 -0700 (PDT)


http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/examiner/hotnews/stories/01/albany.
dtl&type=printable
FWD  San Francisco Examiner - Tuesday, June 1, 1999

     HOMELESS ALBANY RESIDENTS DESPAIR OF LEAVING LANDFILL

     By Marianne Costantinou of the Examiner Staff

[California, USA]

ALBANY - On a landfill at the edge of the bay, a colony of 50 homeless
people live with a million-dollar view and pennies in their pockets.

But this is no ordinary homeless encampment, no cardboard city of nomads.
Many of the residents have lived here for years. Instead of makeshift
shelters of sleeping bags and pitched blankets and cardboard boxes, many
have built their own versions of low-income housing: shacks of plywood,
some with windows, built-in kitchen cabinets and even carpeting.

One fellow has a working shower. A threesome who own a gasoline-powered
generator have electricity, and watch TV and play movies on the VCR. But it
is the veteran resident of eight years who really lives like a king, or was
about to: He is building a two-story, heart-shaped castle made of concrete
and stone, with an arched window for his unobstructed view of the Golden
Gate Bridge.

The residents - some of whom claim college degrees and middle-class
comforts in their past lives - say they've lived here blissfully among the
overgrown brush and concrete hulks of demolished buildings, away from the
pressures of urban life. To them, the landfill has been a refuge and a
source of pride.

"I'm a Landfillian," said Dan McMullan, 36, introducing himself to Albany
City Council members at a recent public hearing before pleading with them
to let him and his homeless neighbors stay.

But the city of Albany, tired of the headaches this marginal community has
brought - from sanitation and crime issues to complaints from its
tax-paying joggers and dog walkers - has banned overnight stays at the
landfill.

The landfill is to become a regional public park, part of the Eastshore
State Park that stretches along the waterfront from Richmond to Emeryville.

The homeless residents have until June 15 to go.

The thought of leaving gives the homeless a sense of despair. They love
this place: its rugged natural beauty, its isolation from a judgmental
world, its sweeping views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and
Mount Tamalpais.

The landfill has spared them from an endless stream of doorways and
shelters, and given them a place to call their own among their own.

"You build something out of the wilderness and make something for yourself
out here," said Robert "The Rabbit" Barringer, 47, who says he has an art
degree from UC-Berkeley and goes to work most days renovating other
people's houses.

As they carve their own spots among the brush, go dumpster diving in town
for lumber to build their homes, ferry their water from down the road, read
by candlelight and cook by campfire, they say they feel like pioneers.

"They make us out like we're derelicts," said McMullan, who has been
homeless since 1984, after losing his right leg in a motorcycle accident.
"The people out here are the most resourceful of the poor, the strongest of
the poor. The lazy can't make it out here."

The homesteaders have nicknamed their outpost The Freedom Colony, and have
even designed a flag that hangs on a pole supported by twisted rebar. It is
a U.S. flag minus its stars, edged with brown camouflage cloth. Written in
the white stripes is a sentiment many hadn't felt in a while, until they
came to live here:

U R SPECIAL

"It's pretty sad we have to go," said Christopher Moser, 38, a former auto
mechanic who repairs his neighbors' bicycles, the chief way of travel. "I
feel at home here."

Here, they are not homeless.

"She's not homeless," said Eddie, 10, overhearing a visitor and jumping to
his mother's defense. "My mom has a home. That's her home over there,"
pointing to a plywood shack with a tarp roof.

Katrina "Trea" Williams, 30, beamed and gave him a tight hug.

"You tell your friends," she said, "your momma has a house with a
million-dollar view."

Eddie and Williams' two other children live with her ex-husband. She visits
them almost daily, driving her car, an old American gas-guzzler she's held
onto from her working days. But she also has another family, here at the
landfill.

Although each person is protective of his own space - visitors must call
out into the brush and be welcomed before entering - there is a sense of
community, especially in the area nearest to town, called The Plateau,
where some of the newer arrivals live close together.

Williams' boyfriend, "Stark" Mike Martin, 49, uses his generator to
recharge residents' batteries for their radios and flashlights. And before
the city installed portable toilets a few months ago, he dealt with the
buckets of human sewage at one of the outhouses.

Ashby Dancer, about 40, has built two houses for neighbors.

"Hmmm, I gotta fix this door," he said, showing off his handiwork. "I'm the
landlord."

Lately, Dancer and McMullan have taken to grassroots politics to save the
residents from eviction: calling activist groups, organizing a rally,
advertising for a lawyer.

"They're making us homeless," said Dancer. "These are our homes. We're out
of their faces. We're not in the street. We're not panhandling on their
corners or sleeping in their doorways. We're not begging or stealing. . .

"This is bigger than just this piece of land. This is about homelessness in
America. Every city in the nation should give homeless people land so
they're off the streets and off the curbs and off the doorways. I built
this one-bedroom all by myself for nothing, so I know there's such a thing
as low-income housing if they want it. I know low-income housing is
possible."

To talk with many of the homeless here is to wonder how they got in this
mess. City officials and homeless advocates familiar with the residents say
that some suffer from mental illness, and that drug and alcohol abuse is
common.

Everyone has a sad tale. Often there is a turning point - an accident, a
lost job, a failed relationship - that sent them tumbling.

Even those homeless for years still can't believe it.

Sarah Teague, 32, who says she graduated from Louisiana State University,
was a case manager for three years at a San Francisco homeless advocacy
group.

"I went from Yuppie to Tenderloin trash," said Teague. "If for some reason
you fall from grace, the city can be very unforgiving."

Unless you've ever been homeless, it's hard not to be judgmental, she said.
Even when she worked with the homeless at the advocacy group, she couldn't
really relate.

"It didn't occur to me," she said, "that it would occur to me."

Physically, the landfill - a peninsula jutting nearly a mile into the bay
on the cusp of Albany, just west of I-80, behind the Golden Gate Fields
racetrack - is like a place that time has forgotten, a wind-whipped jungle
of untamed nature and construction debris.

Three areas distinguish it. Closest to Albany is The Plateau. Moving out
toward the bay, the landfill narrows to what is called The Neck. Then it
balloons to The Bulb, a mass of dense vegetation where most of the veteran
residents live in seclusion.

A dumping ground until 1984 for leftover chunks of demolished buildings,
the landfill will one day be a park. But that is years away, after much
clean-up and planning, said Ned MacKay, spokesman for the East Bay Regional
Parks District, and Ann Ritzma, the Albany assistant city administrator
overseeing the landfill residents.

For years, the handful of early homeless settlers had most of the landfill
to themselves and were largely ignored by Albany officials.

But last summer the population boomed to more than 100 as the homeless were
swept from other encampments in Berkeley and Richmond. Several homeless
said police told them to go to the Albany landfill rather than sleep in
their doorways.

With no running water or toilets on the landfill, sanitation and health
became concerns for officials, Ritzma said. Drug use was also a worry. And
there were increased police calls - including an arson fire set by a
landfill dweller trying to kill two neighbors.

In this solidly middle-class town of 17,000, such crimes were upsetting,
said Chief Larry Murdo, who views the landfill residents as illegal
squatters on public land.

Meanwhile, the completion of the Albany Waterfront Trail brought more
joggers, dog walkers and bird-watchers to the landfill. Some complained to
officials about finding discarded needles and packs of the homeless' dogs
along the trails. And they felt reluctant to enjoy the wildflowers if it
meant traipsing through somebody's yard.

After months of discussion, the city council in March banned overnight
camping and gave June 15 as the deadline for the homeless to move out.

The city called Bay Area social service groups to help the homeless find
other housing, said Ritzma.

But there is an acute shortage of shelter beds and low-income housing, said
Alex McElree, 52, founder of Operation Dignity, an Oakland advocacy group
which mostly targets homeless veterans. And those with substance abuse
problems are unwelcome in shelters.

I've never implied I could help everyone" at the landfill, said McElree.
"It's not possible.

"You're gonna see some of them in the doorways, yeah."

D-Day is two weeks away. But few residents have any ideas what they will do.

Even as they face eviction, some are still building.

Moser and Paula Johnson, 33, who live together, are finishing an addition.
Mark, 38, the veteran resident who wouldn't give his last name, hopes to
finish his castle. McMullan and his girlfriend, Katy Blau, 36, just built a
loft bed, giving them an upstairs and a downstairs. And they've added a
window to view the San Francisco skyline from their bed at night.

"I figure it's just defeatist to stop building," said McMullan.

As the final days draw near, they're grateful for their time here.

"This experience has strengthened who I am, it hasn't debilitated me," said
Johnson. "I still like me. I know I have lots of talents and qualities that
are good and positive and endless."

END FORWARD

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