By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
Farther inland on the Plateau, in a stand of bushes some 500 yards from the freeway, Sarah Teague, 32, has fashioned her "wigwam" -- a small, dome-shaped hut with baskets and innumerable knickknacks hung from its wire-mesh ceiling.
In other circumstances, Sarah would be a beautiful woman -- clear, pale skin, green eyes, amber-brown hair that falls in a wave across her face -- but her teeth aren't doing well, and it's hard to keep clean when you haul your own water and wood. She used to be a social worker in San Francisco, although she says a series of events became too much to deal with, so she stopped working, moved out of her apartment, and began staying with friends and in residential hotels.
When money ran out, it was on to the streets of the Tenderloin, which was a bitch: police, prostitutes, drug addicts waking you up three times a night. She came to the East Bay on a day trip about a year ago and never went back. At first, she stayed with a man who lived by the railroad tracks -- Leatherman Joe. She was never his girlfriend, she just kept his place clean for him, and moved out after he started getting weird.
When his squat on the railroad tracks was swept, Leatherman Joe moved onto the landfill too, next to Sarah.
After Joe set his two fellow campers on fire, he fled, and people started taking his things. It was all very leisurely, done over the course of a couple of weeks. People found items Leatherman Joe had stolen from them; they ate Leatherman Joe's cookies. It was sort of a ritual cleansing.
Sarah doesn't have a hustle, which makes things tough. She'd like to sell things at flea markets -- she does dried floral arrangements, she sews -- although it's hard to get motivated sometimes, so she barters, does errands, relies on friends, and takes care of people, particularly Tricycle Johnny.
John, in his 50s, used to get around on a low-slung red tricycle. People say he was the victim of a hit-and-run accident 25 years ago, and that's why he is the way he is. He has back problems, he doesn't walk well, and doesn't talk well, either, although he is a proud man, and he does understand. On the first of each month, he gets a disability check. Sarah takes him shopping. John buys her food.
Sarah has a home, a certain freedom; friends stop by every 15 minutes or so; "That probably bothers people," she says, "that I can find little crumbs of happiness, you know?" -- although things have been a bit rough as of late. For one, $200 was missing from John's tent this month, and he hasn't been in a good space because of that. For another, his tricycle is broken, and he can't get around. He doesn't come out of his tent much. He lies in there for days at a time. And for another, Sarah has a problem of her own, and since she's giving an interview, she asks, could this be put in too?
Her mother is dying in Louisiana. Sarah wants to see her, but neither of them has the money to fly Sarah back. If there is an organization out there that helps people in situations like this, Sarah wants to know about it: "I can prove that she's ill. I have doctors. I can work with you. I love my mother very much," she says. "I have no money, I have no money, and I don't know how to get home. I need to see her before she dies."
Sarah cries a little, then stops herself. If someone could help, she would visit for a week, then come back. "Indoors is great, but I don't have a social network away from here," she says. "That's a little terrifying, cutting myself off from my social structure, my moral support."
As the clock runs out on the landfill squatters, the city has arranged some help. On a gray Friday afternoon, with a cold wind blowing from the west, a converted ambulance rolls onto the Neck, and a man in a long black overcoat steps out. Alex McElree of Operation Dignity, an Oakland-based homeless veterans outreach program, has been coming for the past three weeks to begin the transition. Albany City Council member Allan Maris, a kindly-seeming man with glasses and a close-trimmed gray beard, is with him, come to learn more.
Of the council members, Maris has been most adamant about taking a compassionate approach, although he, too, wants the squatters gone. "My sense is that every community is in the same boat," he says. "Where are you going to move them? Everybody else is moving them, too."
Word spreads that McElree has arrived, and within minutes, a steady procession of ragged, often wild-looking figures approaches on foot and by mountain bike: a man with a tremendous handlebar mustache and a red fez; a tall, gaunt man with a bandanna around his neck who carries a walking stick as thick as an ax handle, holding it loosely, like a club.