Heartbreak Hotel 

How a group of social service providers took over a drug-infested West Berkeley SRO, invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours -- and accomplished almost nothing

The raids could be clearly heard as the group sat over a turkey brunch in the community room. The heavy thwack of a battering ram reverberated up the steep stairwell, followed by muffled shouts and the stomp of a dozen footsteps. The police department couldnt have possibly known that this was the day that UA Homes was holding its Mothers Day brunch -- it was just an accident of unfortunate timing. Those in attendance sat silently over their plates of turkey and vegetables; it was, no doubt, the fastest holiday meal they ever ate. Downstairs, the target of the raid sat handcuffed to the stair railing listening to the narcotics squad slowly turn her room upside down. Next door, she could hear the same thing being done to her neighbor. But the fact that she was sharing this experience made her feel not one whit better or less alone.

In fact, raids like these were almost beginning to feel commonplace at UA Homes, a 75-unit residential hotel for the formerly homeless on the western end of University Avenue in Berkeley. Although building residents had lived through many crises since they moved into UA Homes, never had things seemed so desperate all at once. Now there was a sense of chaos, as people who were supposed to be in charge stood helplessly to the side. Even in daylight, residents scurried to their rooms, hoping to avoid the attentions of the groups of strangers wandering the halls. Nighttime brought fistfights, knife fights, and overdoses in the hallways. Used needles lay about in the laundry rooms, and blood spots decorated the common bathrooms.

All of this may seem like the kind of problems that routinely plague urban residential hotels, but it was particularly disheartening in this case because UA Homes was designed precisely to avoid such problems. In fact, when UA Homes first opened its doors in 1992, it was heralded as a harbinger of a new age for permanent housing for the homeless. It was to be a model facility, one that coupled housing with on-site services, like counseling and medical care. Relying on a network of social workers, case managers, and community builders based right at UA Homes, residents would have a better chance of staying housed and healthy. But somehow, founders never expected just how fragile this model -- and the lives that rely on it -- could be.

In its previous incarnation, UA Homes was the UC Hotel, a single-room occupancy (SRO) facility built in 1927. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 was disproportionately hard on many of these aging hotels. The UC was not spared, and all 78 of its low-income residents had to be evacuated. For the next three years, the building stood condemned and empty. When Berkeley artist Susan Felix and her nonprofit University Avenue Housing, Inc. took over the building three years later, Felix's mission was to replace a hollowed-out building with a second chance for the homeless. Collecting an impressive package of funding, including loans from the city of Berkeley and the state, Felix's one-woman organization rehabilitated the building to the tune of $5.4 million.

Wanting to provide more than just housing. Felix had teamed up with what was then called Berkeley Oakland Support Services (BOSS, now renamed Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency), got some funding from the city, and went about creating one of the earliest examples of what has come to be known as "supportive housing."

"We had art programs, classes, we had support groups from the community," Felix recalls. "There was a Friday evening game night. We had restaurants that came in and donated meals." Local newspapers, including this one, wrote glowing stories about Felix's victorious transformation of a flophouse into a community. After spending an afternoon helping to dig up the parking lot in the back of UA Homes for the community garden that the organizers had planned, freelance writer Mark Sommer became a convert. "The result today," Mark Sommer wrote in these pages in 1993, "is not just a remodeled building but a revived sense of belonging for people who have seldom known it in the past."

The four-story UA Homes is one of the taller buildings on its block of University Avenue just below San Pablo. The lobby still has its high ceiling and marble checkerboard floors. Out back, the community garden still lies to the side of the parking lot, but it's obviously long past its heyday and now sports leeks that have gone to seed, overgrown flower bushes, and some poisonous herbs.

Upstairs, the floors are sex-segregated -- the second floor is for women, the third and fourth for men. The rooms have sinks that suffice for kitchen duty, along with a microwave. Each floor has four community bathrooms and showers. The carpet in the halls, once cream-colored, is now indelibly marked with heavy black spots that indicate the pathways of life here: up and down the stairs, to the elevator, from the laundry room. Downstairs, beyond the lobby, are offices for a traveling medical clinic, which sets up camp every Tuesday, various service providers, and the property manager.

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