ALBANY -- At 9 a.m. on June 27, the last Albany Bulb camper will have her day in court.
Amber Whitson is scheduled to appear Friday at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in Oakland. She is facing a charge of illegally camping at the former landfill situated on a picturesque spit of land on the Bay. And if recent cases are any indication, the District Attorney's office will request a stay-away order and the judge will grant it.
Whitson, 33, will do her best to fight to keep the only home she has known the last seven and a half years. But she spent what might be her final week of freedom to visit the Bulb, trying to share everything she has learned about the one-time city dump that has been the refuge of last resort for homeless people in the East Bay for close to 20 years.
"I know so much about this place, that I want to share it with as many people as possible before I can't come down here," she said. "(I want to) show it to them so that those people can then bring people down here and show it to them, so that those people can show it to others. Because it's really about being able to appreciate this place while there's stuff down here to appreciate."
Whitson is a walking, talking archive of all things Bulb.
She has stories about fires that broke out, with the residents banding together, running a bucket brigade, to put them out. She has stories about how people used to dispose of car engines off the plateau by backing up their pickup trucks and then slamming on the brakes so the engine would tumble into the Bay. She has stories about a camper named Sandy who built a hot tub.
"He had a water heater built into the side of the wall next to it with the top cut off," Whitson said. She has been working with Susan Moffat, project director of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative at UC Berkeley, and Christina Gossmann, one of Moffat's students, to put together an audio atlas of the Bulb. Whitson has been recording a tour that people could potentially listen to while walking around the Bulb, similar to what tourists do on Alcatraz Island.
At 16, Whitson left home "to see the world." She ended up on the streets of the Bay Area for most of the next nine years. She was living in Berkeley when she and her partner, Phillip Lewis, visited a friend who was living on the Bulb.
"Part of why we came out here was because we were tired of being harassed for being homeless in Berkeley," Whitson said. The city of Albany has had to evict bulb squatters many times over the years so it could turn the land over to the East Bay Regional Park District as part of the Sylvia McLaughlin Eastshore State Park.
A lawsuit was filed on behalf of the group of most recent Bulb residents and a settlement was reached in April, with the city paying $3,000 to each eligible camper in exchange for a promise to stay off the Bulb and certain other city land for one year. Whitson and Lewis were the only two eligible plaintiffs who did not sign the settlement. Instead, the judge granted their request to dismiss their claims without prejudice.
Reportedly, many of the former campers have ended up living under overpasses along Interstate 80, including Gilman Street.
"They're just running people around," Whitson said. "It's the leaf blower effect. Blow your problems onto somebody else's sidewalk. I don't think they understand physics too well. Everybody's got to be somewhere."
On May 29, Lewis and Whitson were arrested in a pre-dawn raid by Albany police. According to Whitson, guns were drawn, including assault rifles, even though the charges centered on illegal camping.
The two have been able to stay with friends here and there, but they also returned to the Bulb one night and were cited again. Lewis returned another time and was arrested on drug charges.
Since the raid, Whitson has been fighting back in ways big and small. She still attends and speaks at almost every City Council meeting. She also creates memes on the Share the Bulb Facebook page, targeting Mayor Joanne Wile and City Manager Penelope Leach for their roles in the eviction of the homeless population.
Whitson said she won't let herself get emotional about her potential ban from the Bulb. "I try not to let my emotions get in the way of things," she said. "I'm like Spock like that. If I let my emotions get in the way of things too much, I would be less effective.
"I'm not going to let them win. Even if I can't come here, they're still not going to win. I will find a way that they still will not win, because they are wrong. I know they won't win."