City Beat

City Beat: Boat dwellers can be a problem on our rivers

Ryan Lillis
Ryan Lillis

There’s a guy the cops call Mr. Smith who lives on a boat tied to a log in the Sacramento River, just a short skip downriver from the Tower Bridge. He’s rarely seen, but he’s out there, hunkered down in a Bayliner named Takee One that’s barely afloat.

Traci Trapani and Jason Warren have been coming across people like this guy a lot. They’re officers with the Sacramento Police Department’s marine unit, and a big part of their daily routine is monitoring a subculture of boat people living on our rivers.

The cops have pulled about 10 wrecked boats out of the rivers this year alone, many of them from the American River over by Camp Pollock. In just over an hour on a sunny Thursday afternoon last week, Trapani and Warren came across four more old vessels moored in the Sacramento River, plus a makeshift raft of tied-together Styrofoam that someone is living on.

“Some of these boats are about to sink,” Trapani said, skippering a police boat past Old Sac.

There was an odd homemade boat with three hulls tied up to the West Sacramento side of the river. The owner can’t find a marina to take the thing, so there it sits. It’s been burglarized and set on fire.

A tour guide has left his ship anchored in the water near the Riverbank Marina on the Garden Highway, a few feet from a sailboat that was also abandoned. A guy the cops know as James lives on his boat with two dogs, but he’d apparently moved on Thursday.

Some of the boats were purchased from desperate owners for as little as 70 bucks. Boats are one of the first things people unload when times get tough. And on the river, one person’s luxury is a makeshift shelter to someone else.

“Just people looking for a place to stay,” Trapani said.

She’s been on the patrol for five years, and Mr. Smith has been living out there the whole time. It shouldn’t be that way, but the city code that should be regulating this kind of behavior doesn’t have much teeth to it. That’s why the Police Department has asked that a new law be placed on the books that would prohibit people from living on boats in the river for more than 96 straight hours. The City Council will consider the request in the weeks ahead.

The new law would make it a misdemeanor to be a long-term river dweller. It could also give the marine cops more leverage to tow away the most decrepit of the boats that are spilling garbage into the water.

For as ugly as these boats are, the damage they’re doing to the city’s rivers is the bigger problem. Some have generators leaking into the water. Once, Trapani and Warren approached a guy on a boat just as he was dumping a bucket of waste – probably human waste – overboard.

He thought that was his home. It’s not. That’s our river.

Call The Bee’s Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at