ALBANY -- At 9 a.m. on June 27, the last camper will have her day in court.
Amber Whitson is scheduled to appear in Department 107 of the Superior Court of California, Alameda County at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in Oakland. She is facing a charge of illegally camping at the Albany Bulb. 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 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.
She offered tours of the site over the weekend of June 21 and 22.
"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. "And a little bitty fire underneath it. And he had these two long planks with little slats nailed to them that went down the really steep cliff down to the water."
She continued that he would "take a bucket and he'd go down to the water and he'd get a five-gallon bucket full of water and he'd walk back up the planks and pour it in the top of the water heater with the little fire going underneath it. And when it got hot, he would just open up the valve and throw it back into the bucket and pour the bucket into the hot tub."
Even if Whitson is banned, the tours may continue, in a sense. Whitson 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.
Whitson, 33, grew up in Santa Monica, raised as essentially an only child (she has a half-sister who is 23 years older).
She had two children as a teenager. Her daughter is now 16. She has not seen her son since his father took him at a young age, and does not know what happened to him.
Whitson's daughter lives with her mother and her half-sister in Corvallis, Oregon. The two lived in Southern California until Whitson's mother suffered a series of strokes recently.
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. "We came out here to visit our friend who lived out here, and we said, 'Wow. It is peaceful out here. Maybe we should try living down here,' and we stayed down here ever since."
Whitson said she intended to be a "hermit," not an activist.
But after serving on Albany's Homeless Task Force, and attending Waterfront Committee meetings, Whitson became aware that the California Integrated Waste Management Board (now the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery) was concerned with digging on the Bulb by the people living there.
Given that the Bulb was once the city dump, some campers were digging to search for valuables. Others were looking for materials for possible art projects. But the excavation also had the potential to release toxic chemicals and the like.
Whitson said she was able to organize the campers to end the digging. But soon, the city began working to evict the campers anyway, with the intention of turning 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 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 underpasses 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.
"Somebody's actually letting us stay in their back house while we're still trying to find somewhere to live," Whitson said. "We're right across the street from the police station. We're not facing them but we're right around the corner."
Whitson laughed, talking about walking her dog, "Derby," past the station.
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 maintains a positive attitude, something she traced back to no longer having her son in her life.
"No matter how miserable some people try to make me, I will not be depressed," she said. "I swore off unhappiness after my son stopped living with me because I had to, because it's self-defense. I won't be unhappy."
She added that a friend commented on how Whitson is able to stay positive through "awful" circumstances.
"Not awful," Whitson said she answered. "Awful would be in jail, (to) have no hope, no choices, nowhere to stay. Difficult, yes. Awful, no."
Whitson said she won't let herself get emotional about her potential ban from the Bulb. Chalk it up to putting up a wall as a matter of survival on the streets if you want. Whitson insisted it's about more than that.
"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."