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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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 doing something wrong."

By 5 a.m., the waitress at Nikko's 24-hour diner in East Oakland had refilled Russ Donovan's coffee mug for the third time. He'd 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 six-foot-two, the Vietnam veteran sat at one of the restaurant's red-padded booths where, on a Saturday, 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 happened on March 1. The largest burglary so far, 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 said, adding that Philbrick has been experiencing theft since it opened in 1934, well before he bought it. His blue eyes grew big behind his glasses as he recalled finding a dead body in his shop in 1992, after a fight broke out between three burglars. "The new element to our crime problem is the homeless," he said. "They're pirates, because they live on their boats and all they do is crime."

In the most recent incident, he said, 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 such as screwdrivers, pliers, and hammers. The thefts forced him to shut down his business for three months. Thieves also ripped out the copper cables from several fuse boxes. Each one costs between $300 and $500 to repair, he said.

The costs have gone beyond the loss of work tools, though; the thefts have also 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 reconstructive neck surgery, Donovan said. He now has a titanium clip in his neck, which causes him so much pain that 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 said, referring to a time during a routine security check 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 said.

In addition to the thefts, the pirates have used the walls of Donovan's property as canvases. He has pictures 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 said. 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 said, from the US Coast Guard to the Alameda County Sherriff's Office. "Nobody has the budget availability for enforcement," he said, 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 arrive at San Francisco Bay in the summer of 2013. The competition will mean a stream of 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 said, "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."

There are also financial constraints. "The problem costs money," said 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 added.

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