Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Booted from Albany, Homeless Flow into Berkeley

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

BERKELEY -- Agency staffers and homeless advocates are working overtime to deal with an influx of homeless people on the city's west side following a yearlong effort by Albany to push out a sprawling camp of 60 people on bay-front land known as the Bulb. 

A small homeless camp under Interstate 80 on Gilman Street has ballooned to a mini shantytown with trash and belongings piling up. And more homeless are in the area around San Pablo Avenue and Gilman Street and the surrounding Berkeley neighborhoods, said Councilwoman Linda Maio, whose district includes the area. 

"It's pretty bad, actually," Maio said of the Gilman Street camp under the freeway. "It's a miserable place to be, and it's unsafe. We're really trying to encourage people to take advantage of services." 

Albany finished moving out the last two campers from the Bulb near the Golden Gate Fields last week in order to hand over the land to the East Bay Regional Park District. 

Through a $76,000 contract with Berkeley Food and Housing Project paid for by the city of Albany, 24 people have been placed in housing, said Albany spokeswoman Nicole Almaguer. 

But the contract won't allow for any more than those 24 to be housed, said Berkeley Food and Housing Project Executive Director Terrie Light. 

"The priority given to us by Albany is to make sure those people stay in housing," Light said. "We don't want them to be homeless again." 

That means about 35 people, formerly living at the Bulb, have gone elsewhere, many of them to Berkeley. 

Maio said Albany officials and politicians could have done a better job foreseeing what happened when they began moving people out of their city. 

"I would have liked to have more coordination," Maio said. "It would have been nice to have worked more together on this. They might have considered investing in some services themselves. I suppose I could have reached out more, too. The degree to which it happened is quite alarming." 

Almaguer defended Albany's work with the homeless and said the camp under the freeway was there before Albany started moving people out of the Bulb. 

"The city provides rental subsidies to help people who may be homeless secure a rental unit and cover a portion of the rent until they are able to fully cover their rent," Almaguer said in an email. 

She said the city also pays into the Alameda County HOME Consortium of six cities that fund homeless programs. 

Matthai Chakko, a spokesman for the city of Berkeley, said several department staffers are looking into the influx of homeless from Albany and trying to put together a plan. 

"We're concerned about the health and safety of those residing in that area," Chakko said. 

Tom Barnett, who lived at the Bulb for five years before being forced out, is living under the freeway on Gilman Street and is staying because he has nowhere else to go. All his belongings make it more difficult to move. 

"It's pretty noisy here, and the exhaust does get to me," Barnett said. 

Those who are trying to help the homeless in the area are frustrated at the lack of resources offered by Albany or Berkeley. 

Dan McMullan and his wife, Katy Blau, have been independently trying to connect homeless in the area with agencies that can get people in housing. 

"I think a lot has gotten done, but Albany is trying to slow things down now and not sign any more people up, so we are basically twiddling our thumbs and letting people rot, and that we can't do," McMullan said. "To leave these people out here is a disgrace to Albany. It's coldhearted to say we are not housing any more people." 

Osha Neumann, an attorney with East Bay Community Law Center, who has represented some of the homeless in a suit against Albany that was settled in April, said Albany's contract with Berkeley Food and Housing was too small an effort. 

"There's just one person doing all the housing outreach for them and it's an enormous task," Neumann said. "The result of what Albany did is to make people refugees from the Bulb. And Berkeley should have been a little more active in pressuring Albany not to do what it did." 

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