Donald Yates says he was taking an afternoon nap when he heard the buzzing sound. He glanced outside the two-story motorboat where he's lived for five years, currently moored on the eastern bank of the Willamette River in St. Johns.
Outside his window was a drone.
"I just sat up and looked, and it was right there in my face," Yates recalls. "That's an invasion of privacy."
What Yates did next—aiming what he says was an empty BB gun at the drone, and pulling the trigger—made him the unwitting star of a modestly viral YouTube video. An anonymous Reddit user calling himself "Drone Man" posted the video June 28, claiming "river hobos" were "shooting at my drone from their floating bike chop shop."
The footage has 14,700 views and counting. Drone Man has been posting videos of homeless camps in North and Northeast Portland since June 16, and now promises to expand his surveillance across the city.
In a town with a housing crisis and an increasingly visible homeless population, Drone Man's video has become a flash point for people who feel that the city's powerful are ineffectual at keeping order and reducing the number of people living on the streets.
But the video also exposes a deep divide among Portlanders about how to treat homeless people. Drone Man's footage raises a question of who is the real scofflaw: the transient boater who pulled an air rifle on a drone, or the anonymous vigilante filming him from the sky?
Drone Man, who declined WW's requests for his name or an in-person interview, says he's been filming boat camps along the Willamette River and Columbia Slough to document destruction of natural areas.
"There is a reason this has touched a nerve, and I understand the views of the people who dislike what I'm doing," says Drone Man via email. "It is very valid to read the situation as man and his toy doing harm to those in society who are most vulnerable. But an equally valid interpretation is: man and his toy exposing out-of-control environmental destruction funded by organized bike theft and shake-and-bake meth."
Yates, 43, the boater Drone Man monitored June 28, started living on boats in 2010 after losing his job as a stagehand and no longer being able to afford rent. He first lived on a sailboat, then moved onto his current boat about a year later. He now lives on the boat with his girlfriend and his mother.
He moves the boat from place to place along the Willamette, not paying any mooring fees. For the past month, he's been docking at a spot in North Portland near the St. Johns Railroad Bridge called Willamette Cove.
Yates likes living on the river—there are views of osprey and a colorful graffiti wall, and he can walk to grocery stores and laundromats. He laughs at the idea he's running a chop shop: "I've got three bikes on my boat."
John, who lives on a wooden sailboat near Yates and declined to give his last name, said any pollution created by people on the river is a moot point. "The entire city shits in the river," he says. "You notice there's no garbage on this beach, like every other beach has. We pick up the garbage whenever we see it."
Yates says the drone that filmed him hovered around his boat for at least 90 minutes. He says he aimed the BB gun as a last-ditch effort to make the drone go away, but it wasn't loaded.
"It's a 1936 BB gun—it doesn't even fire BBs anymore," Yates says. "I keep it around because when people come and harass me, I scare them away by pointing it at them."
Sgt. Mark Herron of the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office River Patrol says he doesn't believe any laws were broken. "We don't have a crime at this point," he says. "We don't even have somebody who's complained of a crime."
Other public officials are already sick of the topic. "We're trying to work hard to help people find permanent housing, for which there is an unprecedented need," says Multnomah County spokesman David Austin. "We don't have time to get caught up with people who have the luxury of time on their hands to play games with fancy toys."
Drone Man says he plans to start a blog "mapping the massive hobo sites" across Portland.
"The website will try to count the bikes and piles of waste at each site," he says. "I'll then do multiple passes of an area to document how it changes over time. I don't care about tents on sidewalks downtown. I care about heavy metals, petro chemicals, and human waste being spilled in our wetlands and riverbanks."
Yates says he feels demonized by the video. He's not even homeless, he points out—he owns his boat.
"They call us homeless, but if you ask me, that's a home," he says. "I got a stove, an oven, a refrigerator, a sink, a shower. I have a bathroom. I have a bedroom. That's a home."