As the economy sinks, homeless people move onto abandoned boats
on March 14, 2012
If you stroll along the shore of any one of the East Bay’s marinas on a crisp morning, you’ll see the usual: young men and women from local rowing teams heaving their oars forward and back, couples holding hands and pushing strollers, and the occasional brazen duck that wanders too close to the dogs out for a walk. Unless you’re a dock manager like Oakland’s Bud Brown, you might not notice others floating along the water: homeless individuals who have taken up residence in the marina’s many abandoned boats.
Over the last two years, Brown has noticed more and more people walking away from their vessels, unable to pay the slip rent to keep them docked at the marina. As the number of these ownerless boats have increased, so too have the number of homeless people who have realized how easily they can replace living beneath an underpass with living on the water. They illegally anchor out in the estuary—the boating community uses the terms “off-anchor” or “on-the-hook” to describe boats that are anchored out in the water, rather than at a dock.
According to state laws, only two categories of people are allowed to live out on the water, and even then only under very specific circumstances. If granted permission by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission—the agency that regulates water sanitation in the Bay Area—harbors are allowed to host a few “live-aboards” to enhance the security of the marina, but they cannot make up more than ten percent of the marina’s population. The only others permitted to live at marinas are world travelers who need a place to dock their boats temporarily. Both these groups of people must live docked at the marina, not anchored out in the middle of the water.
But off-anchors aren’t following these rules, and dock managers say they’re causing other problems for the marina community. As the number of homeless and illegal boat dwellers has increased, they say, so has a chronic wave of thefts that has kept marinas on both sides of the Oakland estuary under siege. Meanwhile, they complain, the illegal estuary dwellers are causing a host of environmental problems by disposing of sewage in the water or abandoning their boats, which can leach toxic substances as they disintegrate.
“There’s always been off-anchors and it was kind of a cool thing,” says Brown, who has been managing the Fifth Avenue Marina in Oakland for the last five years. “But recently there’s been a bad element. People can hide out from the law and take advantage of stealing with no repercussions.”
Before Brown became the dock manager of the marina, he ran an antiques business in Berkeley. There, he was offered a bargain deal: some antique vases in exchange for the boat of Sharon Adams, the first woman to sail across the Pacific. An avid fisherman who once participated in the Big Catch salmon fishing competition in Alaska, Brown couldn’t say no. Since then, he’s been living on the marina, keeping a close eye on who comes in and out.
“’See that over there?” says Brown, pointing to a decaying boat with a thick silver line etched across its side, sitting idly in the middle of the estuary. “Someone’s living on that, illegally.” When asked how he can tell, he smiles in a way that says he’s been doing this for a long time. “The registration number is not current,” he says. “There’s no mast, no motor. It can’t be moved.”
Brown says there are six to eight off-anchors living on the Embarcadero strip that runs from Oakland’s Fifth Avenue Marina through to Alameda’s Union Point Marina. Many of the people on those boats are on parole or probation, he says. (His counterpart, Brock De Lappe, the harbormaster of the much larger Alameda Marina, estimates that there are, in total, about 25 boats anchored illegally in the middle of the estuary.)
Brown says he understands that people need a place to live, especially these days, as the economy seems more and more like a sinking ship. But he’s most concerned with the thefts that have erupted in Oakland and other Bay Area marinas. The most frequently stolen items are outboard motors, Brown says, in addition to anything else of value that can be easily ripped off, like radar units, small rafts and batteries.
Walking around the shoreline in Oakland, Brown points out different means by which potential thieves are able to get out to the water: dingies, rafts, jet skis. He points to a flat, white object floating next to a beat up old sailboat that’s missing a mast. It’s a surfboard. “Two a.m. to four a.m. are the witching hours,” he says as he recounts tale after tale of having to hunt down stolen boating equipment for tenants.
In the last three months, the Oakland Police Department received eleven reports of theft pertaining to boating equipment, in addition to three reports of stolen vehicles at marinas along the Embarcadero Cove alone. Local Problem Solving Officer (PSO) Christopher Keden was made aware of the issue at the meeting with harbormasters last month, in February. “I believe there are a lot of these incidents going unreported,” Keden said, “because from what I’ve heard, there’s a lot of incidents.”
Brown blames the problem on a small, motley group of off-anchors. “I know who steals because I’ve had direct contact with them,” Brown says, estimating that about six to eight individuals are responsible for the thefts. “It’s a small community here. Word of mouth travels in a small community. Just like the police know who the problem children are out the streets, it’s the same thing here.”
Some of the formerly homeless boat dwellers living in the marina readily acknowledge that this is a problem. “Yeah, I know people who do it,” says Andrea Nichols, a 56-year-old who has been living on a boat around Coast Guard Island, off the shore between Oakland and Alameda, for the last two years. “I tell ‘em not to shit in their own backyard.”
But Nichols also says that many of these thefts are not committed by people living on boats, but rather by those coming from land. “The ones that were stealing have places to live,” says Nichols. These individuals, Nichols says, live in motor homes or vacant property. “They like getting things for nothing,” she says, adding that boats are really easy to break into. “And if they can’t use it for themselves, then they sell it and get money for it.”
Brown says that the Fifth Avenue Marina doesn’t have nearly as high of a theft rate as other marinas: it’s smaller, and since Brown lives there, boat thieves are less likely to operate in his territory.
“Talk to Brock,” Brown says about the harbormaster of the much larger Alameda Marina, located across the channel from Coast Guard Island. “He’s closer to that Union Point Marina where they all hang out. He’s closer to the problem.”
Over the phone, Brock De Lappe gets right to the point: He’s constantly hearing from outraged tenants about stolen outboard motors—and he’s tired of it. De Lappe, who has been leading efforts to find a solution to the off-anchor problem, was in the midst of writing up a summary of a meeting between local dock managers, law enforcement, and other concerned members of the boating community.
“Anybody can come in, especially in the middle of the night and steal anything,” De Lappe says. He points out that although there are gates to discourage people from entering the marinas by land, there’s no way to effectively regulate those coming in through the water via kayaks or small row boats. “And what can the police do?” he asks. “They’ll do a police report, but what follow-up is there with that? Zero.”
Theft is not the only problem plaguing the waters. De Lappe and other harbormasters must also wrestle with the environmental effects of off-anchor living, which include water pollution from poor sanitation practices and the dumping of abandoned boats, which snarl the harbor.
Boat dwellers dumping human excrement overboard is a major concern for local marinas and water conservation groups. Normally, legal live-aboards who are docked to the marina have their boats’ septic tanks sucked clean by a mobile waste unit that connects directly to their boats; they also mainly use the marina’s toilets on land. Or, they will dump their waste tanks at a special holding facility.
But the tanks on the boats used by illegal off-anchors don’t have holding lines, “So where do they dump their waste?” asks De Lappe. “Not that there’s not sympathy for homeless people, but where do you draw the line?”
The dumping of human sewage directly into the water also concerns Adrienne Klein, chief of enforcement at the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). “On a small scale, it’s not big deal but cumulatively it’s a big deal,” she said.
Another issue is that both homeless and formerly paying dock residents sometimes leave behind decrepit boats when they move away. The decaying matter on these boats—like rusted paint or leaking fuel tanks—can turn toxic, said Klein. Also, if the boat is not anchored properly, it could wander and crash into other boats, especially during a storm. It’s an occurrence that, Brown said, has happened a number of times before and has cost his marina thousands in damages, especially since the individuals who once lived on those boats don’t have insurance.
At a meeting De Lappe organized at the Jack London Aquatic Center in February, harbormasters from the Fifth Avenue Marina in Oakland to the Barnhill Marina and Boatyard in Alameda agreed that it’s important to dispose of these abandoned boats early on. The problem for most marinas, though, is that getting rid of a boat is expensive.
There’s the labor cost for hiring divers if the boat has sunk, the cost for renting a hoist (a special crane that lifts the boat out of the water and onto land); the cost to hire a tow truck, plus extra dollars for a special trailer to haul the boat over to a temporary storage facility. Then there are the overhead charges for the cost of this facility, where the boat must be kept for 90 days in case somebody claims it.
If nobody claims it, it costs more money to hire someone to break down the boat, especially to melt and recycle the keel—a flat cast iron blade that sticks out of the bottom of the water, keeping the boat upright and prevents it from blowing away. Depending on the kind of boat, dumping it can be even more expensive. Powerboats cost more to get rid of, because of the hazardous material that can result from engine oil leaking from the fuel tank.
Brown said that once the Fifth Avenue Marina had to dish out $10,000 to get rid of an abandoned boat. With all those costs, it’s cheaper to just sell it, even if only for a dollar—something which Brown and other harbormasters have done.
But some people think that law enforcement and local marinas are paying way too much for this service. David McMasters runs a small boat recovery service that pulls abandoned boats out of the water for a fraction of the cost of what marinas and law enforcement units would normally have to pay. He does it for little money, he says, because he built a custom-made trailer he can use to haul the boats on to land. What he can’t recycle, he sells as scrap.
“It doesn’t take 10, 20, 30 thousand dollars,” he says. “It just makes sense to do something like this, than have boats sunk, tipped over, and people doing illegal activities on them.”
McMaster’s boat recovery service has caught the attention of several local marina operators, who feel like cooperation from people like McMasters will be an important part of the solution. But it’s a complex situation, one that can’t be solved simply with tougher law enforcement or more money for boat retrieval, because marinas must accommodate the real needs of people who have retreated to the water, because they have no where else to go. “There’s a social element to the problem,” Klein says. “You’re not ‘just’ dealing with a missing public shoreline or a maintenance problem. You’re dealing with a population that is struggling.”
Some of the homeless off-anchors are trying to stay out of trouble, but a hard knock life has made it difficult for them to come up with other options. On an early Saturday morning, with the kind of perfect weather Northern California is best known for, Nichols tidies up inside her boat the best she can, while her boyfriend Chris docks their small Sunfish raft nearby. Her black lab, Good Boy, bounds excitedly back and forth on the deck, his tail wagging furiously.
Nichols says she had been homeless for ten years before she heard from a girlfriend two years ago about a guy who was selling boats for cheap. Her brother loaned her the money to buy one, and before long she had moved from living on Oakland’s streets into a small one-bedroom boat. “I’m homeless, but I’m not boatless,” she says matter-of-factly.
A New York native, Nichols moved to Oakland in 1991. She came out to the city to live with her mom and get away from her life in Florida, where Nichols says she was a crack addict, worked the streets as a prostitute, and would go dumpster diving in her most sparkling of dresses. Nichols says she put herself through rehab, but started using again shortly after she got out. She pulls out her arm and shows the holes in her veins where she used to shoot up “crank,” or methamphetamines. Now, she says, she just smokes it. “I’m the problem, not the drugs,” she says, blowing cigarette smoke into her dirty blonde hair. She adjusts her skirt—an old black shirt she has wrapped around her waist.
In anticipation of her photograph being taken, Nichols brushes her hair back and uses an old pair of scissors to trim her bangs in front of an oval mirror on her bathroom door, which she’s turned into a storage closet. Good Boy sits on her disheveled bed watching her with his chin tucked between his paws.
The three-rooms-in-one of Nichols’ boat offers her space to accumulate the kind of clutter that any rat pack would have in their home. Half-used bottles of lotion, saline, and nail polish remover sit on a table along with a grill stacked with pots and pans and a used paper plate, which contains the remnants of a burger Nichols ate the night before. A jar of pickles and some bruised bananas sit next to a bag of colorful pens. Light filters in through a see-through, cloth sheet—emblazoned with repeated Superman logos—draped across the windows.
Nichols apologizes for the mess and shoves a white bucket closer to her. Its top is covered with a scrungy old toilet seat duvet. She says whimsically that it has her “poo poo and pee pee” in it. “I try to tell people it smells like roses, but everybody says they’ve never smelled roses like that before,” she says, letting out a short laugh. Nichols said she usually collects her waste in a bucket and then dumps it out at a pumping station on shore, but that the station’s been broken down lately. She also knows others who don’t use the pumping stations at all.
Does she ever throw her sewage waste overboard? “Not all the time,” Nichols says. “Otherwise, the world would be a pile of shit.”
Nichols is a rare member of the homeless community, though. Instead of overtaking an abandoned vessel, she bought her boat for $250 from a guy who others in their small boating community call “Larry the Pirate.” It’s one of three boats she says she owns—all of which are considered illegal because they’re off-anchor and she has not registered them with the BCDC. One of the others is an abandoned boat she took over from a friend who’s now serving time in an Arizona state prison for bank robbery. She’s rented it out twice before—to two homeless couples—but it never panned out.
“The first couple, I charged $25 per week,” Nichols said. “But they weren’t takin’ all the poo poo away and the girl went crazy.” The second couple, she said, paid for one month and stayed for three and a half. Nichols decided not to rent to anyone anymore.
Nichols doesn’t mention anything about the fact that renting out abandoned boats to tenants, let alone living on one in the middle of the water, is illegal. She just says it’s better than where she lived before, over by the old railroad tracks near the shore, on the rocks in between the wood yard and city district buildings, or at Fifth Avenue Estuary Park.
“Living on a boat is hard sometimes,” Nichols says. “But it’s better than living in a tent.”
To have people living illegally aboard unregistered boats out on the water means greater responsibility for harbormasters and the different agencies that patrol the marinas, among them, the US Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, and the Oakland Police Department. It also takes money, something which local law enforcement officials like Officer Jim Gordon—a member of the OPD’s Marine Unit and the central director of the California Boating Safety Officers’ Association (CBSOA)—say there’s not enough of to go around these days.
On a sunny Tuesday morning near Jack London Square, Gordon picks up the walkie-talkie attached to the roof of the OPD boat to let surrounding agencies know he’s patrolling the water. Other than the short grey hairs barely visible beneath his navy blue OPD hat, there are no clues that Gordon is only a little more than a year away from retirement. A “motorcycle cop” with the OPD for 27 years, Gordon mainly regulates truck traffic and port security. But Gordon is also part of a team of three to four OPD officers who patrol the waters about two to three days a week in search of any suspicious activity, such as people taking kayaks beneath underpasses. He says he could probably patrol more, but he’s been preoccupied with other duties, including the Occupy Oakland protests.
Since Gordon joined the marine unit in 2002, after the September 11th attacks increased the federal government’s concerns regarding port security, he’s been writing federal aid grants to acquire top-of-the-line patrol boats for the department. Although he acquired three patrol boats and is expecting a fourth through a grant from the Office of Homeland Security, there’s not enough money to patrol the estuary with the same kind of fervor that it needs, Gordon said. For example, he says, he and the other officers assigned to the unit rarely patrol at night—it would mean overtime that the department can’t afford.
“We have the laws, but we don’t have the money or the system in place to enact them,” Gordon says as he turns on his infrared sonar monitor. As he guides the patrol boat deeper into the estuary, he points out a number of small off-anchor boats clearly abandoned or with people living on them. They’re mostly all rusting at the bottom. At one point, near 6th Avenue, Gordon passes multiple sailboats with orange and black “for sale” signs tacked to their masts, anchored out in the water. He sighs and pulls out his phone, saying aloud to himself, “If you don’t want ‘em, we can get rid of them, but you can’t anchor out.”
Gordon stops and chats with a few off-anchors along the way. One woman sees Gordon’s patrol boat and steps out onto her deck, her long brown hair falling over a tie-die t-shirt. Putting her hand above her reading glasses to shield her eyes from the sun, she tells him that she hasn’t seen any illegal activities lately. “No, it’s all been good,” she says.
Gordon calls this off-anchor resident one of the “better ones,” who got her boat’s registration sticker updated when she was cited for not having a current one. “It’s kind of hard to get on somebody when they’re trying,” Gordon says as he waves goodbye to her.
Another man who identifies himself as Michael stops Gordon and tells him he was at the meeting with De Lappe and the other harbormasters. He leans over his boat, a cigarette stub dangling between his fingers, so Gordon can hear him better. “Some us aren’t doing anything wrong,” he tells Gordon, “We’re not committing the crimes.” Gordon listens and nods, eyeing the man’s boat’s updated registration sticker.
Although Gordon was unable to give exact statistics, he’s aware of the volume of reports coming in about thefts in the marinas. As he pulls away, Gordon says that the thefts are probably committed mostly by people in the same small group, and not by everyone in the off-anchor community.
“Some of these guys are out on parole or probation,” Gordon said, referring to the illegal off-anchor dwellers. “We’ve caught some of them on shore stealing,” especially things like copper which have a high resale value. Gordon points over to an old building off of 6th Avenue. “That guy lost thousands of his own money when a group of people came in and stripped the copper from all his power lines and electrical cables,” he says.
Gordon recognizes that some of the marina’s illegal inhabitants are in bad financial straights. Gordon said he first began to notice an increase in live-aboards “in conjunction with the downturn of the economy. People are losing their houses, so they’ll come across a vessel or a boat.”
But although his relationship with them is cordial, he says, “I’ve been around long enough to know that even someone that seems nice,” can be involved in criminal acts.
By 5 am, the waitress at Nikko’s 24 hour diner in East Oakland has refilled Russ Donovan’s coffee mug for a third time. He’s been there an hour already, as he is every morning before he heads to work at his boat building business. The name “Philbrick Boat Works” is embroidered in white letters across his light blue work suit. At somewhere around 6’2”, the former Vietnam veteran sits just a foot or two under a revolving ceiling fan, one of many that hang above the restaurant’s red-padded booth seats where the Saturday schedules of late night revelers and early morning workers intersect over eggs, toast, and hash browns.
Between Thanksgiving 2010 and August 2011, Donovan has reported nineteen break-ins at his boat shop on 6th Avenue, which lies across from the waters of Embarcadero Cove. The most recent burglary on April 15, 2011, was the third of a string of thefts—each within two weeks of each other—that left his shop stripped bare, especially of its electrical wiring which, among other things, powers his security system. He blames this on people he calls “pirates”— homeless off-anchors who come across the water to steal from his shop.
“Crime has been an ongoing element of inner-city Oakland forever,” he says,
adding that Philbrooks has been experiencing theft since it opened in 1934, well before he bought it. His blue eyes grow big behind his glasses as he recalls finding a dead body in his shop back in ‘92 when a fight broke out between three burglars. “The new element to our crime problem are the homeless,” he says. “They’re pirates. Because they live on their boats and all they do is crime.”
In the most recent incident, he says, these thieves cost him $1,100 in copper wiring and $12,000 worth of inventory: two small grinders he uses to make sawdust, an airless spray painter, a small welder, and hand tools like screw drivers, pliers, and hammers. The thefts forced him to shut down his business for three months, he says. The thieves have also ripped out the copper cables from fuse box after fuse box. Each one will cost between $300-$500 to repair, he says.
The costs have gone beyond the loss of essential work tools, though, and have taken a heavy toll on Donovan’s health. The process of reconstructing his walls, which the thieves tore down, exacerbated his arthritis, requiring him to undergo neck reconstructive surgery, Donovan says. He now has a titanium clip in his neck, which causes so much pain he can only work four hours a day, instead of the ten to twelve hours he was able to work before.
“I’ve come in to work and they’re in the process of doing their deed,” Donovan says, referring to a time during a routine security run that he found a man rummaging around in the yard outside his shop. But because the man didn’t have any tools on him when the police came, he was only cited for trespassing, Donovan says.
In addition to the thefts, the pirates have used the walls of Donovan’s property as canvases. He has pictures he’s taken of their work: detailed, colorful graffiti, often of a spider-like creature, interspersed with not-so-cryptic messages like “Fuck you.” Each time, Donovan paints over them, leaving them a blank wall to work with, but not wanting them to feel like they’ve won.
Donovan started a neighborhood watch with others living and working along the Embarcadero Cove. “Either you’re part of the solution, or you’re part of the problem,” he says. And he has recorded the—expired—registration numbers of the six to eight vessels he believes hosts the group of people responsible for most of the thefts at his shop. He’s contacted everyone, he says, from the US Coast Guard to the Alameda County Sherriff’s Office. “Nobody has the budget availability for enforcement,” he says wearily. “The head of the Port of Oakland’s security told me, ‘There’s nothing we can do about it. We don’t care about that.’”
America’s Cup, the top sailboat race in the world, will hit San Francisco’s waters in
the summer of 2013. The competition will mean a stream of big money coming into the city, as well as added pressure on Bay Area marinas to get rid of the homeless population living on the water. “You want to look good for your city,” Brown said. “You don’t want to get stuff stolen, or have all these derelict boats. Nor do you want someone dumping their waste next to all these fancy yachts coming in.”
But enforcement remains a job that many in the marina community believe is not being done right. There are practical constraints to enforcing the law in an off-anchor community. For example, De Lappe says, “If a vessel is out on the water, and doesn’t have a current registration, the Coast Guard is allowed to cite them for lack of registration. But where are you going to send the citation? These people don’t have a mailing address.”
And there are financial constraints. “The problem costs money,” says Brown, not only to dispose of the abandoned boats, but to provide social services for the homeless population living on the water, and to incarcerate the individuals who are stealing. “And no one wants to deal with that,” he continues.
Brown has an idea for how he’d deal with the problem of derelict boats and the off-anchors who have taken control of them by the time America’s Cup reaches the bay’s shores. “The solution’s real simple,” he says. “Put an abandoned sticker on these boats. Say [to the owners], ‘You have 72 hours to claim this otherwise we’ll destroy it.’ Then, destroy it.”
But Brown doesn’t want a total ban on off-anchor residents. Although, it’s not allowed based on “laws already on the books,” he believes that those who are off-anchor—with updated registration permits—who are not causing any trouble and just choose an “off-the-grid” lifestyle on the water shouldn’t be punished. “Six to eight people have caused all the problems in these marinas,” he says, fuming, over the phone.
Nichols is on the hunt for a new boat these days, because her boat’s been leaking through the bilge—the lowest point on the boat that collects excess water. If not taken care of, it can cause a boat to sink. She sticks an orange pump into an open floorboard, causing water to splash over her leopard print rain boots.
Despite these risks, and the rumors about increased law enforcement, Nichols doesn’t have any immediate plans to leave the water, although she has applied for SSI—Supplemental Security Income from Social Security—and says that if she gets it she would move into an apartment.
In the meantime, though, while she’s “close to shore and in a good neighborhood,” the water will remain home. “The cops don’t seem to be giving anybody a hard time. They’re just riding around, checking things out, trying to do their job,” she says.
And if law enforcement does get ratcheted up before the America’s Cup, she says, “I’m not going to worry about that until time comes.”
This story was co-published in cooperation with the East Bay Express.
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