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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Some of the formerly homeless boat-dwellers living in the marina readily acknowledge the problem. "Yeah, I know people who do it," said 56-year-old Andrea Nichols, 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 committed by people coming from land. "The ones that were stealing have places to live," said Nichols. These individuals, Nichols said, live in motor homes or vacant property. "They like getting things for nothing," she said, 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 said, referring to 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," said de Lappe. 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 asked. "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 who dump human excrement overboard are 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'll 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?" asked de Lappe. "Not that there's not sympathy for homeless people, but where do you draw the line?"

The dumping of sewage directly into the water also concerns Adrienne Klein, chief of enforcement at the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. "On a small scale, it's not a 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 drift and crash into other boats, especially during a storm. It's an occurrence that has happened a number of times before, Brown said, and has cost his marina thousands of dollars 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 nine marinas around the Oakland estuary, including the Oakland Barnhill Marina and Boatyard, Grand Marina, Fortman Marina, Marina Village Yacht Harbor, Alameda Marina, and Fifth Avenue Marina, agreed that it's important to dispose of these abandoned boats early on. The problem for most marinas, however, 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 costs for the storage facility itself, where the boat must be kept for ninety 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, the weighted fin on the bottom of the sailboat, made of lead or iron, which stabilizes the boat. 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.

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