Previous resident of Albany Bulb gives tour of former encampment

Michelle Kim/Staff

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Clad in black boots, black pants and a netted shirt, Amber Whitson led 10 UC Berkeley students up the route she used to travel daily.

“Ooh, something’s dead,” she said with a chuckle.

“Yeah, I saw that,” one student said.

“Glad I didn’t. I don’t need to see any more dead things,” she said, wielding a hand-rolled cigarette that she never smoked. “Look how the world allows me to stay oblivious.”

Whitson is a former resident of the Albany Bulb, a landmass north of the Berkeley Marina where about 70 homeless people used to live before their removal in April 2014.

UC Berkeley junior Kristian Kim organized the tour with hopes of spreading the history of the encampment and sharing its remnants.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this place,” Kim said. “I was introduced to this space by Amber a few months ago, and I was just really touched by it.”

The first stop was Whitson’s old home, a hollow that blended into the surrounding park. She said police dismantled years of construction in a matter of hours.

In its prime, the structure had appeared as a giant brown box, which had revealed within a drainage system, a porch, a queen-sized memory foam mattress and a brick staircase that Whitson’s former partner built to accommodate her bad knees, she said. They even had a skyroof made from clear plastic panels, though all that remained were parts of the home scattered near a graffiti-covered tree.

“It was the only home I’ve ever had since I moved away from home with my mom when I was 16,” she said. “This will always be home. Long, long after we move away from here.”

The Albany City Council voted in May 2013 to enforce a no-camping ordinance which would relocate the Bulb’s population, with hopes of transforming the area into a state park. After a lawsuit on behalf of the residents, a settlement offered 28 residents $3,000 each if they agreed to leave the Bulb by April 25, 2014.

Whitson and her partner, Phillip Lewis, rejected the settlement, and on May 29, 2014, they were arrested at the Bulb and charged with illegally camping.

Whitson has since broken up with Lewis, though she said they remain close. She now lives in a truck parked a mile and a half away from the Bulb.

Though she described herself as a recluse, Whitson spoke and engaged with ease. She seamlessly switched between the narrative of the events surrounding her expulsion and anecdotes about the park’s former community. Rattling off names and numbers relating to the Bulb, she would pause only to comment on a particularly interesting plant or to ask a passer-by about the breed of her dog.

“I firmly believe we would have had a better chance of actually being treated like humans when we were thrown out of our homes if more people were aware of it in Albany,” she said. “But not enough people knew.”

Whitson led the students along an overgrown pathway to a “castle by the sea,” built by someone whom she called “Mad Mark.” The structure looked like a metal bomb shelter covered in tags, with a crude triangular window facing the Golden Gate Bridge and a small spiral staircase leading to the roof. Whitson described midnight walks to the castle with her cat, in which she would would clean up nearby bottles for the safety of the children who played there.

After leaving the Bulb, many of the inhabitants moved under the Gilman Street highway overpass, which the city of Berkeley then cleared July 18, 2014. Whitson said half the Bulb’s former residents now live in houses or apartments, though in her opinion, they are still not getting the support or case management they need.

After the bulb’s eviction, Berkeley and Albany provided services for displaced homeless people.

“It was a community of disabled people, people with mental, physical and emotional disabilities,” Whitson said. “People were healing.”

After leaving the castle, the group walked to see an open letter to the community graffitied on boulders by a past resident. The letter addressed passers-by: “You can help (politicians) understand that we are not agentless statistics, we are not summed up neatly by a term like ‘homeless,’ we are not without intelligence, and we are not without voices.”

The San Francisco skyline loomed like a distant world, far removed from the place’s now-uninhabited tranquility — a quiet contrast of cracked cement structures and wildflowers.

“I stood there on the main path, and there was nothing — no bike coming, no rustle of bushes other than a critter,” Whitson said. “It was dead.”

Contact Frances Fitzgerald at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @f_fitzgerald325.