Homeless on the Water

To be without a home means to be in search of the “unclaimed” spaces of the world — sometimes niches on private land where one can live unnoticed, or perhaps public spaces where one will be left alone.  There are plenty of open spaces in far-flung rural areas where one might live for a time without causing any bother to anyone else, hopefully also lightly upon the land, but it’s difficult for poor people to live far from services and businesses.  In urban areas, it’s harder to find open spaces.

But it’s a different story on the water.  When you’re in a boat on the water, you’re far from the usual claims upon space.  The waters of the world don’t belong to people, or to businesses or cities, in quite the way that space on land does.  So it’s no surprise that there are an increasing number of people who are homeless on the water.

In the Bay Area, one of the most popular places to live this way, for those who have the means to obtain a boat to live in, is Richardson Bay near Sausalito.  And this issue of the so-called “anchor-outs” who live this way, anchoring out of the marina, in random spots in the Bay, has become more concerning lately as the number of anchor-outs has increased.

Are people who have a boat to live in, really “homeless”?

Yorkshire Post NewspapersIn one way of looking at it, they are not, since their boat is their home and it may provide perfectly good shelter — in most cases these anchor-out boats containin not only a bed, but also a fully functional kitchen and bathroom.  However, the critical aspect of their dwelling style which serves to categorize them less as housed and more as homeless, is the essential illegality of this way of living. After all, those living in a car on a public street, or in a tent on the sidewalk or under a freeway overpass, or in a handmade hut in a hidden place in a Bay Area regional park, are also not without some form of shelter, and it may in many cases be perfectly good shelter, particularly if one views it by comparison to what passes for a home in an undeveloped nation.  But the issue common to all of these homes is that they are placed illegally, on land belonging to someone else or devoted to some other purpose and not intended for camping, much less open for pioneer homesteading.  So this puts all individuals housed in these hidden or unclaimed spaces, at risk of losing either their home or the space where they live in it.

There are many boat-dwellers who live legally on their boats, in the Bay Area and beyond — as in this blog by UK boatdwellers —  or this one  –paying mooring fees and other costs associated with this lifestyle, it does allow living at a lower cost than can generally be had on land.  (Berthing fees at the Berkeley Marina are currently $200 a month)  However, the lower cost also means higher demand, and it’s not so easy to find a spot to berth a boat.  As well, legal liveaboards must be seaworthy and kept in good condition, which means money for maintenance that many anchor-outs don’t have.

As reported in this story  in the San Francisco Chronicle, the city of Sausalito began to move to take action to deal with the problem of an increasing number of anchor-outs, which often caused problems to other boaters, and were sometimes abandoned boats or trash vessels.  Anchor out sausalito

The anchor-outs are a type of free spirit, one of the last ways for free spirits to live with some dignity and style:

Michel and about 100 of his briny brethren live free from the tethers of society — and, in many cases, free of charge — on as many as 177 boats anchored illegally in the waters that lap against the picturesque Marin County city.Jean Michel relaxes in his sailboat while it is anchored on Richardson Bay. Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

Jean Michel relaxes in his sailboat while it is anchored on Richardson Bay.

“When you are at sea, you can be whatever you want to be,” said Michel, 57, his long gray-blond hair blowing gently in the breeze coming in from the Golden Gate. “You are connected to the energy of the universe, unconstrained by society.”

One man has lived rent-free in Sausalito for 50 years, aboard his anchor-out, as described in this story.

Update March 2018: there’s a man living in a boat, who has been illegally “parked” in the waters of Aquatic Park in San Francisco, and is refusing to leave, in spite of not having permission or permits for his boat to remain in place in that spot.


From the article:

“If he gets away with it,” said the Dolphin Club’s Hechanova, “there will be a new invasion of squatters anchoring in the cove and polluting the waters.”

It seems that a sort of “aquatic towing” company might be needed if the city hopes to enforce laws for watercraft at marinas!

More recently, Sausalito has made some major changes to try to address the growing problems associated with the anchor-outs, as as reported on CBS evening news here. “When it comes to the fight against illegal anchor-outs, Sausalito is striking out on its own….”  a city spokesman said, “We have seen an increase in quality of life issues, crime issues, debris vessels”  The news report states that some of the laws in effect had not been updated since the 1930’s, “allowing direlect boats to wash ashore or wreck havoc afloat.  But in the 3 weeks since the new laws went into effect, 6 boats have been removed.  It’s a good start, many mariners say, and hope that it will continue.”

The reporter mentioned that local “indigents” who live on the water say that by getting rid of them, they will just be moved from one part of the Bay to another, which isn’t actually solving anything.

Who are these anchor-out dwellers and how many of them are there? Well in this KQED article it’s reported that 14% of Marin County’s homeless live on the water.  Anchor out cartoon

It seems that as is often the case with places that otherwise homeless people find to go, that too large a community can work to their detriment — as associated problems increase, cities tend to move in and pass more restrictive laws or increase enforcement.  As the KQED writer summarizes:

People have lived here on the margins of land, water and legality for decades. Though they may have dropped anchor years ago, people “living on the hook” face an uncertain future.


There is some news on the “anchor-outs” in Richardson Bay, near Sausalito.  They are finally being cited and asked to leave, or face being confiscated/towed.  So is reported here in the SF Chronicle.  

Another story of homelessness on the water:

A man has been illegally anchoring in Aquatic Park in San Francisco, without a permit. He lives on his boat and claims he is homeless.
The judge convicted him of anchoring without a permit and his boat has been seized. He will have to pay $3400 to retrieve it.

THe story is here: https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Rogue-Aquatic-Park-yachtsman-gets-his-day-in-court-12867363.php

Sacramento too has some homeless on the water:


This article describes some of the problems people face when they try to come up with plans to escape the high cost of Bay Area living, and live on the water:


From San Leandro to Redwood City, residents who chose to reside in floating homes and other live-aboard vessels — either because of the allure of a watery world or because they can’t afford homes that cost millions of dollars — have been forced to move in recent years. Their plans capsize amid challenges unfamiliar to landlubbers, including the encroachment of subdivisions, environmental conflicts, marina regulations or legal battles involving waterway access.

Redwood City, for example, has taken steps to rid Docktown Marina of its 70 floating homes. The reason: California once owned the marina property and granted it to the city on the condition it will be available to the public, not reserved for private houseboats and floating homes.

Contra Costa County distinguishes floating homes from houseboats and other live-aboard vessels such as sailboats. It defines a floating home as a “stationary structure in, on, or above the water” that is either permanently grounded on a flotation system and moored into place, or affixed to a permanent structure like a dock, foundation, barge or other “permanent structure.” In contrast, live-aboard vessels are equipped to accommodate dwellers, and houseboats have “either a pontoon or flat-bottomed hull configuration” that make them mobile….Aruna Bhat, the county’s deputy director of community development, said if a zoning district does not explicitly allow floating homes they are illegal, period. None of the zoning districts in Contra Costa allow the homes.

Why Contra Costa County has effectively banned floating homes is unclear. Bhat said she believes their permanency makes them unacceptable because they take up water space that many consider public.

It’s sort of like putting a house in a public park,” she said.

For years the county has been on a mission to clear the Delta of illegal live-aboard vessels, fueled by concerns that they contribute to waterway traffic congestion and pollution. The Delta is both a shipping channel and key source of irrigation water.

The county also spent years abating homes built without permits on islands in the delta — a hunt which could have begun when inspectors went to Salisbury Island to investigate a claim that PG&E overcharged a resident and discovered illegal wiring connecting dwellers to power lines, according to this news organization’s archives.

The cost of removing and cleaning up abandoned vessels, derelict houseboats and sunken barges in Delta waterways has run in the “millions,” said Doug Powell, a formerly retired lieutenant with the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office who now works part time with the office’s Marine Patrol Unit. The county has spent years working with the state to obtain abatement funds.

Powell said he understands why people sometimes turn to floating homes or live-aboard boats when they can’t afford more traditional housing. But for financially struggling people, “having a boat is not a fix,” Powell said. “It’s not cheap. It takes a lot to maintain,” he added. Even if the county legalized them in certain areas, “we would need to have a whole other bureau to handle floating home communities.”

The Ott-Dahls’ home is not one of these abandoned eyesores. Even with a fire-gutted interior, it’s a striking home, painted a deep Cape Cod blue with crisp white trim. They could have moved the house to a different marina, but the cost estimates for moving the house are too steep for the family, even if they could have found a marina to legally place the house.



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