Paul Powelson and his wife went to Our Marina in Long Beach to recoup. Their savings lost to medical expenses, they moved out of an Anaheim apartment in June and onto a boat they bought for $1,000 from an impound yard.
"The bills broke me," said Powelson, a 40-year-old truck driver.
John Ranft was homeless until he found an old scow and parked it at the 140-slip marina, located on an inner channel of the Port of Long Beach. Nearby, along storm-battered docks, two women, Willi Madden and Joanne Clark, live on boats without engines.
Trailer Park of Marinas
Flush against the seawall at a vacant Ford Motor Co. plant, amid the oil derricks and smokestacks of the industrial South Bay, this is the trailer park of Southland marinas.
For years, Our Marina has accepted the boats that no one else would take: wide boats and long boats, boats with wooden hulls and peeling paint, boats without engines or insurance.
Bucking a trend at marinas to strictly limit the number of people who live on boats, it has no such restrictions and provides low-cost housing for about 90 people on 47 boats.
But soon it will close.
This month, the Powelsons, Ranft and their neighbors were told they had 30 days to leave because the 23-year-old Our Marina is making way for a shipping terminal.
After frustrating days of searching, neither the Powelsons nor most of the others have been able to find another home on the water.
"Nobody takes live-aboards. And they won't take this size boat. . . . What's going to happen now?" Powelson asked as his 39-foot Chris-Craft cruiser, scraped clean for painting, bobbed in the long shadow of the Henry Ford Bridge.
His anger and confusion are echoed along the wobbly gangways at Our Marina.
Although the marina is hardly the sun-splashed harbor of picture post cards, its approaching closure has left many of its residents near desperation.
The live-aboards--senior citizens, struggling young families, middle-aged couples--can afford their current monthly payments of about $350 ($7-a-foot slip fees plus a $100 live-in charge), but they may not be able to find housing at that cost on land.
"From our perspective, it's very simple. We're willing to move our boats, just tell us where to move them. We're not a bunch of trash," said oil-field mechanic James Smith, 51, who lives with his wife, daughter and 2-year-old grandson aboard the 45-foot Joy Marie.
Our Marina's boat owners have been caught in a legal struggle between the marina operator, whose license expired June 30, and the Port of Long Beach, which wants no part of the marina operation.
The port, after spending $14.4 million to buy 72 surrounding acres, wants operator William Melamed of Los Angeles to live up to a 1986 agreement to clear the docks so that construction can begin on the marine terminal.
"The understanding was that he would give the boat owners notice, and they would have a year to look for something else," said David Hauser, president of the Long Beach Harbor Commission.
Instead, Melamed's Channel Enterprises Inc. continued to rent out slips through June, billed tenants for July rent, and then on July 8 began serving boat owners with the 30-day notices to vacate. Along with the live-in boats, there are about 75 others tied up there, a few of them as sleek as can be found in any marina.
Channel Enterprises' attorney, Max Factor III, said company officials continued to operate the marina because they thought they had an understanding with the port that the facility could stay open until the port showed that it was ready to use the property.
The marina is attempting to get the port to allow the tenants to remain at reduced rates for at least four more months, he said.
But port officials said they repeatedly instructed Melamed to clear the marina by June 30.
"We'll merely do what the law allows us to do--serve these people with notice. Hopefully they'll be able to relocate their craft," Hauser said. "If the boat owners are perturbed, they should be perturbed at the Channel people."
Indeed, the boat owners recently formed a tenants association and are pooling funds, collecting $500 so far, in part to hire an attorney.
The tenants are also looking for help from the city-run port, but say their calls to city officials have been fruitless.
"This is the derelict, the slums of the marinas, so we are just derelicts to them," said Dale Kinyon, spokesman for the tenants group.
When they leave, whether in days or months, the boat owners will face a shortage of slips at marinas throughout the region, with most restricting live-aboards to 5% to 10% of their slips.
"We don't want to turn our public marinas into a Hong Kong, a Saipan Alley," said Tom King, leasing agent for Long Beach's 3,800 city-owned slips.
A survey of 11 marinas in Redondo Beach, San Pedro, Wilmington, Long Beach and Newport Beach found one available slip for live-aboards and waiting lists of months to many years. Several operators noted that new tenants are not accepted unless their boats are well kept and seaworthy.
About 35 slips were available for unoccupied vessels, but nearly all of them were for small craft, those less than 30 feet long and 10 feet wide.
Sonny Palfin, 51, a salesman for the Boy Scouts of America's used-boat yard at Our Marina, said that he has been unable to find a slip in the area for his 50-foot, $90,000 "motor yacht" and that he and his wife plan to move to the Sacramento Delta next month.
Compared to some of their neighbors at Our Marina, however, the Palfins are lucky: They will be able to move their boat.
Clark, 57, and Madden, 65, both own vessels that would have to be towed to other marinas. But no other place would likely accept the dilapidated craft, the two women said.
A marina resident since 1978, Clark said she will now "be put ashore without a boat. It's just like throwing me out of my home."
Clark is a part-time janitor who has received free rent and a stipend for cleaning Our Marina's bathrooms, while Madden is a half-time clerk with failing sight.
They worry that, when the Marina closes, they will wind up in tiny apartments far away from the ocean.
"I had no idea how great it would be to live on the water," Madden said. "I won't leave until I absolutely have to."