San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Yacht town becomes homeless battleground
Sausalito paying high price in long battle over boats
“I don’t see any way I could talk you off there. I mean, it’s your property. If it was my house, I’d do the same thing.”
Police officer who was called in to negotiate
All the homes looked the same at the gated community that opened during the pandemic.
Two dozen square foundations plotted in an orderly grid, each with easy access to the waterfront.
Neighbors mingled at a tennis court, caught up over beers and gossiped about who was feuding with whom. Some had workshops to tinker with reclaimed wood or North Bay essentials like generators. At least one person had a meticulously trimmed cannabis plant.
It was just the type of community Sarah Gossage had long sought — a reprieve from a life unsettled after her mother’s sudden death.
“My mom always said, ‘Make it to the end with the best memories,’ ” Gossage said. “Sausalito is where I like myself the most.”
But she knew it wouldn’t last. In this gated community, the houses were tents bought with taxpayer money. Neighbors who paid property taxes wanted back the public ten
nis courts transformed into a COVID-era tent city. Local officials grew impatient with a situation that would soon unravel.
The conflict at Sausalito’s Marinship Park grew out of local authorities’ long-running battle with “anchor-outs,” people who for generations have lived aboard small boats in nearby Richardson Bay. The authorities argued that many boats were in poor condition, and that their presence beyond a 72-hour time limit harmed the environment and made the water less welcoming for tourism and recreation. Anchor-outs countered that the water should still be under the purview of higher-ranking federal officials, that environmental damage has been overstated, and that many who live on boats have nowhere else to go.
The grudge match spilled ashore during the pandemic, when more than a dozen anchor-outs said in interviews or lawsuits that their boats were seized and they were left homeless. Many then squared off with the city that moved to corral them and other unhoused people at one park encampment.
What followed was a nearly two-year odyssey that made the wealthy exbohemian suburb an unlikely epicenter of California’s homeless crisis — and fueled a debate about the degree to which local authorities may have driven people to tents in the first place.
In August, after the city said it had spent more than $1.5 million to manage the encampment, Sausalito announced what appears to be an unprecedented $540,000 settlement with 30 homeless people: about $18,000 each to test if it’s possible to buy your way out of a humanitarian crisis.
Through more than three dozen interviews, analysis of public data and a review of thousands of pages of court records and planning documents, The Chronicle found that the conflict also resulted in other significant human and financial costs:
• Informal detentes between anchor-outs and authorities crumbled in recent years, as city, regional and state officials moved to clear dozens of people living on boats. From May 2019 to July, the Richardson Bay Regional Agency destroyed 111 boats judged to be “marine debris” amid efforts to clear anchorouts from waters off Sausalito. The number of vessels plunged from 192 to 71 — a decline mirrored in nearby waters controlled by the city, from 90 boats to nine as of last year.
• The sharp drop in boats coincided with a spike in homeless people living in cars and RVs in Sausalito, from two people in 2019 to 71 in 2021. Though updated official estimates for unsheltered homelessness aren’t yet available, residents say as many as 150 people passed through pandemic encampments.
• Sausalito officials have spent nearly $1.6 million on pandemic encampments, not counting staff time, including six-figure legal bills to fight encampment lawsuits, contributing to a projected $3.2 million city deficit.
• Allegations of mismanagement at the cityrun encampment, plus complications of homelessness, like trauma, illness and substance use, coincided with a loss of life: At least five people from ages 24 to 84 died after cycling through Sausalito encampments since last year, according to interviews with family members and neighbors.
Sausalito officials and the Richardson Bay agency deny that their actions contributed to the surge in local homelessness. Each told The Chronicle that they have started new programs, enlisted social workers and invested money to find alternatives to living on the street.
Still, the city acknowledged a rapid increase in people living in tents.
“The encampment site was a major challenge all around,” the city of Sausalito said in a statement. “The fact is, dozens of people arrived in a short period of time and were living outdoors on the ground.”
Like other cities struggling to address encampments, the conflict also divided housed residents. Some complained of lawlessness, safety concerns and small businesses bearing the brunt of a strained safety net. Others viewed it as a symptom of a broader identity crisis.
“There are people who want the Sausalito waterfront to be the next Newport Beach,” said 20-year resident and accountant Jacqueline Amrikhas, who has donated supplies to encampments. “It’s gonna determine what Sausalito’s about, and its character.”
One blistering August morning at the San Rafael Yacht Harbor, Michael Ortega-Haas climbed up on his Kendall 32 sailboat, the Silver Bow, and refused to come down.
It had been a month since the Richardson Bay agency seized the boat that Ortega-Haas, 31, co-owns with the mother of his two children, fellow Sausalito houseboat-kid-turned-anchor-out Kaitlin Allerton, 29. He occupied the boat while she fought in court to prevent it from being crushed by the agency.
A police officer was called in to negotiate. He, too, was stumped after Ortega-Haas pleaded his case about why the boat — which was labeled “marine debris” while a pregnant Allerton temporarily moved ashore — should not be destroyed.
“I don’t see any way I could talk you off there,” the officer said. “I mean, it’s your property. If it was my house, I’d do the same thing.”
Sausalito’s waterfront has lived many lives. The Coast Miwok fished for halibut here 3,000 years ago. In the 1800s, new ferries facilitated summer retreats for San Francisco’s elite. By the time OrtegaHaas’ grandparents moved to a houseboat at the height of 1960s counterculture, there was also a “working waterfront” full of boat builders, artists and industrial businesses.
Ortega-Haas’ grandmother had already given birth to his mother on her boat when an inflection point arrived in 1971, testing the tension between rich and working-class Sausalito. New waterfront condos were approved, and the sheriff started houseboat evictions. One person on a boat pulled a knife, news reports said. Officers drew their guns.
County supervisors called it an “insurrection,” but the evictions were postponed.
While houseboat drama played out on the docks, another conflict simmered a few hundred yards out on the Richardson Bay anchorage — a scenic estuary that after the 1980s was jointly ruled by Marin County, the state San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, Sausalito, and other neighboring cities. The Richardson Bay Regional Agency was created in 1985.
It’s long been illegal for boats to stay more than 72 hours on the anchorage, but public documents show that “extended stays” are common. In the past five years, the anchor-out conflict intensified as the web of state and local agencies brokered new plans to clear sections of the bay for economic and environmental reasons.
In 2017, after concern at public meetings that the bay was becoming a “dumping ground” for dilapidated boats, the city of Sausalito withdrew from the Richardson Bay agency and approved a plan to clear anchor-outs from a slice of water it controlled. The city started a Safe Harbor Program to move some boats to marinas, but one anchor-out testified in federal court that the shift also led to “the city … pushing us into waters governed by the RBRA.”
The Richardson Bay agency, meanwhile, came under pressure to crack down on remaining anchor-outs after a 2018 state
audit found that the state’s higher-ranking BCDC had “neglected its mission to protect the bay,” spending money for environmental cleanups on staff salaries as pollution concerns mounted. Political fallout combined with negative perceptions about anchorouts — plus concern about nearby eelgrass, which serves as a feeding and spawning ground for several species — to forge an RBRA transition plan to clear the anchorage by 2026.
“Nothing stays still, and that’s really hard for people,” said RBRA Interim Executive Director Stephen McGrath. “I recognize that and I honor that, but nothing stands still.”
Many anchor-outs reject the Richardson Bay agency’s authority, citing the anchorage’s historic federal designation. They view the plan as a gambit to replace poor liveaboards with what anchor-out Arthur Bruce calls “stabbin’ cabins” — nicer leisure boats for wealthier owners (and sometimes, their companions).
Marin County already considers anchor-outs homeless under federal guidelines about living without access to utilities. Some mariners have floated self-governance approaches to legalize boat life. But with no deal, the water wars kept escalating.
An entire YouTube subgenre catalogs arrests, egg throwing and screaming matches between anchorouts and law enforcement. In one April 2021 incident, Amrikhas, the Sausalito accountant, watched as an anchor-out arrest devolved into a four-hour standoff, clouds of tear gas and a fire that killed the man’s dog, the Pacific Sun reported.
“The whole situation was disturbing,” Amrikhas said. “They just watched it burn.”
RBRA Harbormaster Jim Malcolm said his agency follows set procedures to monitor whether boats are occupied, hires surveyors to evaluate vessels and appropriately tags them as marine debris. On a tour of the anchorage this summer, the retired Coast Guard officer compared old, cluttered boats to “flophouses,” and said some have sunk or broken loose and hit other boats.
In 92 cases since May 2019, the Richardson Bay agency said boats have been disposed of after being voluntarily surrendered. The agency also runs a Safe and Seaworthy program and has vacillated on plans for a mooring field with designated parking spaces. Most recently, the agency signed up six people for a boat buyback that has so far paid out a total of $32,500. One condition, which the agency says is designed to avoid onshore housing impacts: Participants agree not to go to “any encampment or other outdoor area in the City of Sausalito, San Rafael or Novato.”
“We have not made anyone homeless,” Malcolm said.
Robyn Kelly has been homeless since late 2019, when her boat was seized and destroyed by the Richardson Bay agency, she said in a lawsuit filed the next year. The agency declined to comment on the ongoing case, but attorneys said in a legal filing that the 25-foot boat was “unseaworthy,” which Kelly disputes, and tagged as marine debris.
Kelly, 59, had spent most of her life just up the shore in Mill Valley. She moved to a boat as an affordable way to live near her ailing mother, moving fluidly between water and land, like many anchor-outs. In the nearly three years since her boat has been gone, Kelly said she’s slept on benches, in shelters and — like a dozen other former anchor-outs interviewed by The Chronicle in Sausalito since 2020 — at encampments that sprang up in waterfront parks.
“They just kind of leave it where you gotta wait,” Kelly said. “I don’t know where you wait.”
It was December 2020 when Camp Cormorant was born, named for the birds that coexist with anchor-outs on Richardson Bay. Daniel Eggink, an 83year-old activist, pitched the first tent on the edge of Dunphy Park.
It was here, on an empty patch of land overlooking the bay, where Sausalito’s long-brewing waterfront housing crisis finally boiled over.
Homelessness in the affluent 7,200-person suburb is often shielded from public view in cars, RVs and boats, county surveys show. So it came as a shock when the unauthorized park encampment quickly grew to nine people, a February 2021 city report tallied, including six residents who it appeared “previously occupied vessels on Richardson’s Bay.”
“Although some residents find the tents unsightly,” the city wrote in a statement, “current federal law limits the ability of municipalities to remove homeless encampments from public property.”
The Sausalito City Council quickly called a meeting to consider a ban on overnight sleeping on most city land. The exception would be another nearby park: Marinship Park, home of the Sausalito Art Festival — an unprecedented move to a city-sanctioned encampment in a place where the median house sells for just under $2 million.
The Zoom meeting lasted three hours, with people who called in to support the ban citing concerns about homeless “overpopulation” and impacts on businesses like a nearby “caviar place.”
City Council Member Ian Sobieski, meanwhile, warned that the plan could still backfire. An investor whose biography points to seven trips to Burning Man as evidence of “his bohemian bona fides,” Sobieski expressed concern that a city-sanctioned encampment could attract more unhoused people.
“Nine can turn into 90,” Sobieski said. “Ninety can turn into 900.”
But with judicial precedent requiring cities to give homeless people someplace to exist in the absence of sufficient shelter, the council approved the ban with Marinship Park as the city’s designated encampment.
Camp Cormorant residents won a temporary restraining order to block the move, but after that expired at the end of June 2021, the city cleared the encampment and began the forced move a mile up the road.
Sarah Gossage moved to Marinship Park late last year. Unlike the former anchor-outs who stayed there, Gossage, now 44, had been homeless off and on since she was 15, when her mother was killed in a Sonoma County murdersuicide, news reports confirm.
Growing up on “old biker code,” Gossage said she’d started using drugs with family members around age 13. With no real support system after her mom was murdered, she said she bounced among relationships in exchange for a roof over her head — which researchers call “survival sex,” and the New York Times estimates impacts roughly 1 in 3 homeless youth.
Things leveled out 15 years ago, when Gossage was pregnant, and she said she stopped using drugs, started working security gigs and lived for several years in a rental with her young family. Being “normal” only lasted so long; agoraphobia became debilitating, she said, and her son, Wyatt, went to live with his dad.
Gossage hoped that coming back to Sausalito from a riverside encamp
ment in Petaluma would help get her life together by osmosis, surrounding herself with “a higher class of people.” She wanted to move to Lake Tahoe to be with Wyatt, but with no resources like housing vouchers, it proved an uphill battle. She’d never signed a lease, paid rent or read her name on a utility bill.
“I don’t exist on paper,” Gossage said. “I don’t know how to be a productive member of society.”
In December 2021, amid concerns about health risks from fecal matter in the grass at Marinship Park, Sausalito moved Gossage and her neighbors to the sanctioned tennis court tent city. San Francisco nonprofit Urban Alchemy was hired to manage it for $463,620.
Public records detail how ugly conflicts at the encampment got. In September 2021, Air Force veteran and anchor-out Holly Wild alleged in a federal court declaration that a Sausalito Police Department worker “threw rocks” at her while she protested as a boat was crushed. In early February, the city declared an emergency after a propane explosion was sparked by a 61-year-old woman at the tennis court camp. Two weeks later, a North Bay journalist filed a lawsuit over an incident caught on video, when he alleged police forcefully arrested him and seized his equipment.
This past summer, lawyers for the California Homeless Union turned their attention to the city contractor hired to run the tennis court encampment, Urban Alchemy. A motion for a restraining order alleged that two workers “sexually harassed, assaulted and have had non-consensual sexual relations” with women at the camp, and “openly used and trafficked” methamphetamine.
“No one has filed a police report or criminal complaint,” attorneys for Sausalito said in a court filing about the Urban Alchemy allegations, adding that the two people identified in the legal filing no longer worked there.
For anchor-out-turned-encampment resident John Burke, 57, it was little surprise that conditions at the tennis courts had devolved. He’d grown up along the bay in Belvedere and ended up in a tent while he battled throat cancer after 15 years on the anchorage.
Burke said the Richardson Bay agency had seized and destroyed seven of his boats. The agency’s Malcolm said one of Burke’s boats sank and cost thousands of dollars to remediate. As far as Burke was concerned, the discord at the encampment was just one chapter in a long and bitter battle with local authorities.
“They lost the skipper on this boat,” Burke said. “They don’t know where they’re going, and they don’t know why they’re doing it.”
The hats came into view first on a blustery morning outside the San Francisco Federal Courthouse.
Robbie Powelson, a recent college grad-turned-activist who temporarily moved to Camp Cormorant to avoid bringing the coronavirus home to his father, had on a well-worn fedora. Anchor-out and erstwhile Sausalito City Council candidate Jeff Jacobs sported a classic sailor’s cap. Arthur Bruce, the f ellow activist anchor-out, wore a herringbone driving cap.
“The motley crew,” Bruce said with a mischievous grin.
The omicron strain of the coronavirus was still raging, but they’d trekked across the bridge for important business: filing more lawsuits against Sausalito and other Marin County cities struggling to run sanctioned encampments.
Before the pandemic, the California Homeless Union that Powelson and Bruce work with had filed lawsuits over encampment evictions in cities like Santa Cruz and Chico. Those cases revolved around blocking encampment sweeps by invoking landmark federal court case Martin v. Boise, which held that the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prevents cities from barring sleeping on public land if people have no alternative.
In Sausalito, the Homeless Union had cited federal pandemic health guidelines to stall the clearing of Camp Cormorant. Now, the pirate encampment was going a step further, trying to beat cities driven by metrics, jargon and procedure at their own game — in this case, by flooding them with handwritten pro se, or self-represented, civil rights lawsuits.
On this spring day at the courthouse, Powelson was helping a resident of a San Rafael city encampment under Highway 101 file suit over health concerns like car exhaust, thundering traffic and a lack of clean water. After a brief holdup at security, where Jacobs was denied entry for not having a valid ID — “street lawyer fail,” Bruce chided Powelson — the group was soon on an elevator to the 16th floor.
The TLC song “Waterfalls” played in the clerk’s office as Powelson shuffled papers.
“We did the best we could,” he said as he slid over a stack of forms.
The guerrilla lawsuits might seem like a long shot, but city officials say encampment legal bills turned into a major driver of a projected $3.2 million city budget deficit. Spending records obtained by The Chronicle show private lawyers billed around $200,000 to argue cases over how much square footage cats should be allowed at encampments, who should pay for Bruce’s parking permit outside the camp, and several other niche cases.
“The unanticipated expenses created a very difficult budget environment,” Sausalito City Manager Chris Zapata said in a statement.
Back at the encampment a few weeks later, during another day of huddling around Bruce’s truck for a Zoom court hearing, a sudden shock drove home how precarious daily life had become.
A woman in a dark SUV pulled up next to Bruce’s truck. The news spread person by person.
“Noodle’s dead,” the voices said.
Noodle, a.k.a. Joel Shelton, 24, died of an overdose on a path in San Rafael on April 20, weeks after he was asked to leave the camp at Marinship Park, his sister was told by police and former neighbors. Shelton Livingston wondered why she wasn’t contacted when police said her brother — who had a young child and seemed so close to getting on track before the pandemic stole a job he loved in Point Reyes Station — had also overdosed a few days earlier.
Noodle, who Livingston said had moved to a friend’s boat before winding up at the tennis court, was one of at least five people to die after living at encampments in Sausalito during the pandemic.
In August 2021, James “Jimmy” Hughes died in a tent at Marinship Park after returning to Sausalito from years away. Jessie “Jay Man” Mann, 53, died of complications from heart failure in January after staying alongside other anchor-outs at pandemic encampments. Daniel Eggink, the activist who started Camp Cormorant, died in May at age 84 while staying with family.
Rafael Lopez, 63, died in February after other anchor-outs said he returned to a boat from onshore encampments and experienced severe health issues. He’d lived on the water — “on the hook,” he called it — since 1995, lured by the romance of rocking to sleep under San Francisco’s skyline with his wife. They divorced, but Lopez stayed to be near his sons, he told The Chronicle last year, and anchoring out became a financial necessity when contracting work dried up.
In the months before his
death, Lopez had started a GoFundMe to get out of the encampment: “We have to hold on to our mariners’ way of life,” he wrote on Facebook. “Our Boats are our Homes.”
Livingston was left to wonder if things might have been different for Noodle if he’d been housed, or at least at the camp with medical supplies.
“There’s just a lot of shameful things that happened,” Livingston said. “The only defense we have is each other.”
By August, it was clear the tennis court encampment’s days were numbered. As lawyers negotiated a group settlement, some homeless residents bartered for what they could.
Gossage took one of the first deals: $1,500 in cash from Sausalito police, she said, plus a ride to Lake Tahoe in a pickup truck, to leave and go be with her son for his birthday.
By Aug. 15, Kelly was one of two people left at the tent city waiting for housing help that never came. Her options, as she understood them: stay and get arrested, or accept a room at the Muir Woods Lodge in Mill Valley until a shelter bed opened up.
The next day, a city press release announced a $540,000 settlement with 30 homeless people with the headline, “Sausalito encampment residents move indoors.”
City officials declined to comment on individual cases, citing confidentiality rules, but financial records show that two Sausalito police officers were paid $2,000 each in late July for “relocation expenses.” Other city expenses listed after the closure of the tennis court encampment include $42,500 paid to the Muir Woods Lodge, $41 for a Greyhound bus ticket to an unspecified location and a $21 taxi to a North Bay shelter.
Most California homeless encampments are cleared in exchange for much less, if anything. The Sausalito settlement was also unique in that it appears to be the first public case of a city paying homeless activists — in this case a $50,000 administrative fee to the Homeless Union, which it had just spent several times that much battling in court — to dole out funds directly.
“This settlement is an innovative way to get people out of tents and into housing,” Mayor Janelle Kellman said in a statement. “With the agreement, Sausalito has paved a humane course of action that allows each person’s unique needs to be met.”
Factions are divided over the legacy of the tennis court tent city, which today sits empty behind another layer of chain-link fencing and no-trespassing signs. Does it show the folly of cities getting into the encampment business? Potential benefits of direct cash aid? The selfdefeating nature of California’s housing crisis? Some who lived through it say it’s all of the above.
The city is already working to recoup its costs from bigger branches of government. Sausalito has received $167,000 in funding from Marin County to defray encampment costs, officials said, and is awaiting answers to applications for nearly $1.5 million in other state and county grants.
The tennis court camp had functioned as “an internment center,” California Homeless Union chief counsel Anthony Prince said, but he saw the settlement as both a practical and political win. The L.A.-raised former steel union organizer is still fielding up to 25 calls a day to pay motel bills, sign off on RV expenses and otherwise get settlement recipients housed.
Governments should ultimately be repurposing their own real estate to immediately house people, Prince argues, but he sees the cash settlement as one alternative to pouring more money into social services contractors that he dismisses as the “homeless industrial complex.” Training is already under way at encampments in other cities on how to file self-represented lawsuits, he said, and someone could always still sue Sausalito over related issues like boat crushings, police conduct or allegations against Urban Alchemy.
“This is the best we could do,” Prince said. “We’re not through with Sausalito.”
As of Oct. 10, more than half of the settlement funds — about $268,500 — had been spent, Prince said. Eight of the 30 people included in the settlement had signed a lease for at least a short-term rental. Nine used the funds for cars, vans or RVs to live in, providing a different version of homelessness, rather than a way out. Four people were working on boats they planned to call home — somewhere other than Richardson Bay, as far as Prince knew.
Burke, the longtime anchorout who moved to the tennis court while battling throat cancer, said between UCSF chemotherapy treatments in mid-October that he had used his share of the settlement money for an apartment in Oakland. He expected to run out of rent money in about two months and was working toward a housing voucher for however long the cancer allows.
“I found a place for as long as I can afford it, I guess,” Burke said, though the move had robbed him of life along the waters he’d roamed since he was a kid. “The whole community’s been shattered — the whole tradition, the whole legacy — and just been thrown to the wolves.”
After moving back to the tennis courts from a shelter just after the settlement, Kelly learned she wasn’t part of the deal. She’s once again at a San Rafael shelter with her dog, Nacho, and on several housing waitlists. She has no idea when her name might come up.
Allerton and Ortega-Haas, meanwhile, welcomed their second son in August. Allerton is living in subsidized housing near Marin City with her two young children. She and OrtegaHaas recently found a slip for the boat in the East Bay after trying “nearly every spot” around.
They hope to use the Silver Bow for future sailing trips, though Allerton worries about what the future might hold for friends still on the anchorage contending with ever-stricter enforcement of time limits and fewer public access points on land.
“There are still people out there, people with children,” Allerton said in October, “who need to get on shore.”
Life in other corners of Sausalito has also moved on.
During the first week of September, an Apple+ film crew setup in a parking lot across the street from the old tennis court encampment to film a Jennifer Garner thriller, the Pacific Sun reported. The city declined to comment.
On a sunny recent Tuesday afternoon at Dunphy Park, where Camp Cormorant formed in the doldrums of the first pandemic winter, two women gossiped over salads along the shoreline. A man played fetch with a Swiss mountain dog. At a bocce ball court a few dozen yards from where tents used to stand, a group in floppy sun hats chatted as a wireless speaker pulsed with the opening chords of The Doors’ “Break on Through (To The Other Side).”
Two hundred miles away in Lake Tahoe, Gossage is still stuck in a familiar cycle. She and eight other settlement recipients remain in limbo, living in motel rooms they have to call Prince to extend or couch surfing while they try to qualify for housing vouchers, contend with cutthroat competition for apartments, or suss out alternatives like buying vehicles or remote chunks of land.
The father of Gossage’s son initially arranged a van for her to live in outside his apartment, but that plan went sideways when he fell behind on his own rent despite a long-term job at a health food store. Then Gossage’s on-again, off-again ex showed up, and she ended up in jail with two black eyes and feet swollen with what she thought was a MRSA infection.
As the sun sank over the lake on a quiet fall evening, she was scraping to get by on tortillas and refried beans. A friend named Cave Man — also from the North Bay, and also homeless despite a construction job — eagerly awaited a burrito she fried on a hot plate on the motel room floor.
By her count, she had about $15,000 left to start over in a state where she’d lived almost all her life, but which had rarely felt like home.