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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Brown said that one time 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 that 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 is able to do it for little money, he says, because of his custom-made trailer that he uses to haul the boats onto land. What he can't recycle, he sells as scrap.

"It doesn't take ten-, twenty-, thirty-thousand dollars," he said. "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 say that cooperation from people like McMasters is 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. "There's a social element to the problem," Klein said. "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 their hard-knock lives have made it difficult for them to come up with other options. On an early Saturday morning, with the kind of idyllic weather Northern California is known for, Andrea Nichols tidied up inside her boat the best she could, while her boyfriend Chris docked their small Sunfish raft nearby. Her black lab, Good Boy, bounded excitedly back and forth on the deck, his tail wagging furiously.

Nichols said she had been homeless for ten years before she heard from a girlfriend two years ago about a guy, known to the small boating community as "Larry the Pirate," who was selling boats for cheap. Her brother loaned her the $250 to buy one, and before long she moved from living on Oakland's streets into a small one-bedroom boat. "I'm homeless, but I'm not boatless," she said, 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 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 pulled out her arm and showed 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 said, blowing cigarette smoke into her dirty-blond hair. She adjusted her skirt — an old black shirt she has wrapped around her waist.

In anticipation of her photograph being taken, Nichols brushed her hair back and used 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 sat 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 pack rat would have: Half-used bottles of lotion, saline, and nail polish remover sat on a table along with a hotplate stacked with pots and pans and a paper plate, which held the remnants of a burger Nichols ate the night before. A jar of pickles and some bruised bananas sat next to a bag of colorful pens. Light filtered in through a sheer bedsheet — emblazoned with Superman logos — draped across the windows.

Nichols apologized for the mess and shoved a white bucket closer to her. Its top was covered with a scrungy old toilet seat duvet. She said 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 said, 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 said. "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. It's one of three boats she says she owns — all of which are considered illegal because they're off-anchor and have not been registered with the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. One of them is an abandoned boat she says 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.

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