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Stephens and his county colleagues say they're just trying to offer assistance to those that want help. "Nobody's trying to get these people off the water," he says. "Nobody wants to disrupt their way of life. We just want them to know that if you want to come off the water, if you need help, if you need benefits, let us know."
But with the 2013 America's Cup looming on the horizon, many anchor-outs are convinced local authorities want to "clean up" Richardson Bay before the Cup arrives. "There's always been pressure to get rid of the anchor-outs or thin them out," says Romanowsky. "It comes in waves. Every 10 years or so, there's a new movement."
Jennifer Tejada, responsible for increasing law enforcement on the water since she was named police chief last year, flatly denies any such allegation. "I have no intention of cleaning it up for America's Cup," she says. "My intention is to protect and serve this community."
The chief says she's well aware the anchor-out community is a politically sensitive topic in a town with a strong maritime identity. "The anchor-outs are historically the sacred symbol of bohemian Sausalito," she says. "Unless you really go out there and you meet and greet the anchor-outs, or you look at the statistics, or you're in this business, you don't see beyond that."
She insists the police's renewed focus on the bay is not about driving out the anchor-outs but about reducing the waterfront's comparatively high crime rate. Sgt. Bill Fraass, who leads the department's marine patrol unit, says 27 anchor-outs were arrested during the first six months of 2011 (the most recent period for which numbers are available), largely for crimes such as public drunkenness, methamphetamine use and possession of stolen property. In addition, Fraass says about 45 people who live on the water or frequent the waterfront area have criminal histories and are still active in crime.
"There's a pretty big percentage that are part of this revolving door of this quality of life crime trend, and so we want to address those," he says.
But ask most on the water and they'll say the anchor-outs have suffered a long history of persecution and harassment that predates even the houseboat wars of the 1970s and '80s. In the late 1980s, anchor-outs successfully fought the Bay Conservation and Development Commission's efforts to curtail long-term mooring in Richardson Bay. (In a move especially offensive to the anchor-outs, the agency had begun classifying many of the anchored vessels as "bay fill.")
Diane Linn, executive director of the Ritter Center, a nonprofit that works with homeless throughout Marin, isn't surprised the anchor-outs tend to have a strained relationship with local police. "Either by their own choices or by their own existence in a culture of poverty, the relationship with police officers tends to be traumatic for the most part," Linn says. "When you're poor, you really have those experiences. People should not be too surprised when there's not an openness or willingness."
Dominique McDowell is among a handful of social workers trying to overcome the residents' wariness. As a case manager for the Ritter Center, McDowell attends the weekly free lunch held at Sausalito Presbyterian Church, where he offers residents help obtaining IDs, bus tickets, clean showers, county medical services, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and other services.
"It's a population that has learned how to survive with basic necessities and basic skills," McDowell says. "And that causes a lot of conditions. That causes depression, poverty, hunger, lack of showers . . . no funds."
McDowell, who says he struggled with drug addiction himself and spent time in prison earlier in life, voices wonder that the town doesn't do more for its maritime residents, such as provide public showers. "I know how it feels to be thrown away, to feel uncared for, to feel like your life has no purpose, to feel like nobody cares," he says. "When all the time you live on survival skills —that's how these people live— they just want to survive another day. It's a lonely place."