Last fall we reported on the impromptu community that grew up on a spit of land in the East Bay known as the Albany Bulb. Homeless people put up tents and wooden sheds all over a grassy former landfill with gorgeous views of the Bay.
Bulb campers said that even though they didn’t have conventional houses, they did have a group of people that took care of one another, shared meals, and hauled water together.
“Out here, if I yell for help, somebody’s going to come, because my neighbors care," said longtime resident Katherine Cody. "They do, and they’re going to come.”
But the community that formed on the Bulb was problematic for the city of Albany. The land was supposed to become part of the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park, and some park supporters, such as Robert Cheasty, President of Citizens for Eastshore Parks, urged the city to enforce a ban on camping.
“Camping, building structures, dwelling out there, living without plumbing – all of those things violate approximately 14 laws that we deal with,” said Cheasty. “And it also breaks faith … by allowing certain people to privatize.”
The Albany City Council voted to go through with the clearing plan and hired a non-profit to help the campers find housing elsewhere. For more than half a year now, social workers have been meeting with willing Bulb campers, to help them get I.D.’s, apply for disability income, and look at affordable apartments.
Through the winter and spring, 13 homeless residents of Albany, most of them from the Bulb, have relocated to rentals in Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland. Doris Sanchez is one of them.
Meet Doris Sanchez
Sanchez and I are standing in the concrete courtyard outside her new apartment in Richmond. We're about to step into the grassy alleyway for a walk around her neighborhood. The 54-year-old redhead laughs as she tells me about one adjustment she’s made.
“I am not used to keys, let me tell you,” says Sanchez. “When you have a tent, you don’t have keys. Now I have keys and I gotta lock everything up. You gotta lock the front door, you gotta lock the gate.”
Sanchez lived at the Albany Bulb on and off for 16 years. When she and her boyfriend first moved to this apartment, someone stole their bikes out of the courtyard; they weren’t used to locking things up. Sanchez says no one stole from them back on the Bulb; though she’d lived in a tent, she was among people she knew and trusted.
We head up the alley towards the main road. The block is a mix of small apartment buildings and single-family homes, some with bars on the windows and wrought-iron fences around the yard. We pass a church that serves a hot breakfast every third Saturday of the month. Sanchez hasn’t tried out the food herself, yet, but she hears it’s good from her boyfriend.
As we walk, Sanchez describes how she spends her days. She started seeing a counselor last fall, while still living at at the Bulb.
“My counseling’s down the street,” she says. “You know, it’s about my son and everything, my son that passed away.”
Sanchez had three children, but they moved away once she became homeless in the late 1990s. Last year she reunited with her older son, who tracked her down at the Bulb and visited her there a few times. But late last summer, he was found dead, in the water near the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I was ready to lose it,” Sanchez says. “Yeah, I was cutting my hair, I was staying in the tent all by myself and I couldn’t recognize myself in the mirror because my hair was gone, it was short. I realized, ‘God, I’m going down.’ I had to shape up. So I kept myself busy with the [Berkeley Food and] Housing [Project]; I went out with them. That kept me from going, I think, down under. Because I didn’t sit there, thinking about my son all day.”
The city of Albany hired the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, which started working with Sanchez to find a place. She looked at six or seven apartments with them before picking the one in this neighborhood.
As we walk down the main commercial stretch, Cutting Boulevard, we pass the bus stop, a laundromat, a coffee shop, and a check-cashing place where Sanchez pays her PG&E bill each month.
Then we head back to her place. She tells me she’s been getting Supplemental Security Income for some time, even while on the Bulb, because of carpal tunnel syndrome. But without a home address, she says, she had to pay somebody else to get the money.
“I have a payee, so she cashes the check for me and then she gives me the money in a envelope,” says Sanchez.
Sanchez says finding work would put her one secure source of income, her S.S.I. payments, at risk.
“You can’t have no other kind of income," she says, "or they’ll take the money out of your check.”
Her boyfriend and their roommate also get S.S.I. checks. Pooling together, they can cover the rent and PG&E bills, though the city of Albany paid the first three months’ rent.
Back in the courtyard of her building, Sanchez greets one of her two cats. Then she has some difficulty with the lock on her apartment door.
“Uh oh, we might not get in. It’s not working. it’s like somebody poked it or something,” she says anxiously. “I gotta tell the landlord about this before I get locked out of the house.”
Once inside her apartment, Sanchez tells me how her life has changed.
“So far, since I moved out of the Bulb, I’ve gotten an apartment, I got my ID, not doing drugs,” she says. “I go to counseling for that. I have my teeth being worked on, and I got my glasses.”
Over the course of seven different appointments, a dentist has removed her bad teeth. Soon will come the dentures, all paid for by MediCal.
And more changes are in store. Now that she has a stable address, Sanchez can let her payee go. She’ll get her S.S.I. checks directly, in the mail. That’s $50 more in her pocket every month.
She says she’s bored and lonely without all of her friends at the Bulb, but being inside again means a lot to her.
“I feel like I’m a human being now. I feel like I’m part of the world now,” Sanchez says. “I pay my rent and I’m just like, part of the world. I’m not living out in the city dump, you know, for free. I had the best view out there, though, I tell you.”
Meet Larry Cabrera
About 12 miles south of Sanchez’ apartment, another person who was relocated from the Albany Bulb isn’t sure it was worth it.
Larry Cabrera moved to a duplex in West Oakland in January, after three years on the Bulb. The City of Albany is paying the rent for him and his two roommates. Like Sanchez, Cabrera prefers living indoors. For one thing, he’s got a refrigerator, and a sink. He says having a refrigerator where he can keep food fresh for longer helps him stretch his food stamps later in the month.
Here in his kitchen, the shelves are nearly empty, except for some cereal, peanut butter, and beans, but Cabrera says it’s a lot simpler to make his favorite tostadas here than it was on the Bulb.
“Well, it takes a long time, to cook, you know, like the beans and chorizo, and to make the sauce, and it usually has to be kept cold,” he says. “Using your hands a lot with the food, it’s harder to keep your hands clean down at the Bulb than it is here.”
Back on the Bulb, getting water meant hauling five-gallon containers more than a quarter-mile, up and down a hill behind the Golden Gate Fields complex.
“They have a hose with hot or cold water they let us use,” Cabrera says.
In his new place, he’s got a tap. And a bathroom.
“I used to bag it and take it out,” he explains.
So this apartment’s cleaner and has running water and electricity, but its location is a drawback for Cabrera. He’s much farther away from his friends at the Bulb, and from his sister, who lives in Richmond.
“Out here in West Oakland, it’s kind of away from everything that I’m used to,” says Cabrera. “It’s sort of a pain to commute, because of transportation. I only have a bicycle.”
The day I came to visit, Cabrera had biked to the store eight blocks away and back. That may not sound like much in this flat Oakland neighborhood, but Cabrera’s lungs are scarred from years of working in asbestos abatement. On a bad day, after a ride like that, Cabrera says he’s had enough.
“I’m pretty done for the day, almost,” he says. “I come home and lie down or go to sleep.”
Buses and BART are not an option, because he can’t buy a ticket. He has no money. Despite the asbestos damage, he hasn’t been able to collect disability, or his pension. Back on the Bulb, things were different.
“I used to make a little bit of money like scrapping metal, and like recycling,” Cabrera says.
Now that’s not happening. Living away from the Bulb has been lonely for Cabrera. One friend from the Bulb also moved into this apartment, but even so, Cabrera’s felt isolated – and worse.
“Down there [at the Bulb], usually a lot of people are asking me for help for something, one thing and another, and it keeps me busy,” says Cabrera. “I like to be there for people. And over here I feel, you know, I don’t know, kind of worthless."
Cabrera and his roommates have been in West Oakland for about four months. Meanwhile, Albany’s contract with the non-profit expired, and the initial social workers moved on to other things. The city signed a new contract in late February, and the Berkeley Food and Housing Project hired a full-time social worker to work with Albany homeless. Cabrera met him for the first time in mid-March, but didn’t have a chance to discuss his needs.
Cabrera thinks that once the rent subsidy from the city of Albany ends, he’ll be outside again.
“I don’t know if it’s … How can I say? If it’s worth, I guess, giving up to live here for that,” he says. “Otherwise, you know being over there and having to work harder to do the same thing. But I was a little more happier, you know?”
Meanwhile, the Bulb community is shrinking. In mid-April the city of Albany reached a legal settlement with 28 Bulb campers who agreed to leave by April 25th, in exchange for $3000 each.
The full-time social worker from the Berkeley Food and Housing Project will continue working with current and former Bulb residents through February of next year. By that time, more resettled campers will be trying to form community in new places.