Homeless on the Bay 

A growing number of homeless people are taking up illegal residence on off-anchor boats — and some say their presence is causing increased environmental pollution and crime.

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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 pulling their oars, couples holding hands and pushing strollers, and the occasional brazen duck wandering too close to the dogs out for a walk. Unless you're a dock manager like Oakland's Bud Brown, you might not notice 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 — on average $200 to $250 per month — to keep them docked at the marina. As the number of these ownerless boats has increased, so, too, has 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 Oakland Estuary — the boating community uses the terms "off-anchor" or "on-the-hook" — 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 San Francisco 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 10 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. The increase in the number of homeless and illegal boat-dwellers, they say, has led to 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 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," said 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 Sites Adams, the first woman to sail solo 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?" said Brown, pointing to a decaying boat with a thick silver line etched along its side, sitting idly in the middle of the estuary. "Someone's living on that, illegally." When asked how he can tell, he smiled in a way that revealed he's been doing this for a long time. "The registration number is not current," he said. "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 to Alameda's Union Point Marina. Many of the people on those boats are on parole or probation, he said. (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 the different means by which potential thieves are able to get out to the water: dinghies, 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 said, as he recounted tale after tale of having to hunt down stolen boating equipment for tenants.

In the last three months, the Oakland Police Department has 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 Christopher Keden was made aware of the issue at a meeting with harbormasters 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 said, 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 on the streets, it's the same thing here."

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