The Hell that Grace Built 

Some people take in stray dogs. Grace Mangrobang took in stray people.

Abraham Ruelas has lived and worked within several blocks of Grace Joy Lodge for 33 years, but until today he has never ventured up to its black wrought-iron gates. He stands out front, peering through the bars at the peculiarly castle-like building and its drab gray and white turrets. But that's where the resemblance to anything regal ends, for seldom has a building's name been so out of keeping with its reality as Grace Joy's.

"There was usually a guy right there by the tree inside the gate, howling," Ruelas says, pointing at a palm tree just inside the gate. "He did it in the morning, the afternoon. He would just howl and scream and wake us up sometimes."

Neighbors didn't need to get this close to the old boardinghouse to share in its misery. According to them, the behavior of its tenants ranged from the odd to the frightening. Ruelas resides in Oakland's Fruitvale district just a few doors from these gates, and works as an administrator at Patten University, a small Christian college located a block away. On a short tour of the neighborhood, the 51-year-old points out the Quik Stop across the way where one Grace Joy resident chased him and his wife, Pat, after they refused to give her money. Over there is the corner where another resident known for propositioning neighborhood children would take off her pants. He waves a hand toward the railroad tracks where a lodge tenant had once dressed up in a makeshift uniform and attempted to direct traffic. Passing his own front porch, Ruelas indicates a cul-de-sac where a Grace Joy crew would camp out and drink. "They'd come up here and hang out at night," he says. "They were supposed to be fed, but they were always aggressively panhandling, saying that they were hungry."

The Patten campus also had experienced plenty of lodge-related incidents. There was the man who claimed to be Jesus and said he was searching the property for mushrooms, and the guy who showed up for a prayer meeting and ended up chasing another attendee through the building. One Grace Joy tenant stole copper pipe from a campus construction site, and another time, after a fire was set in the basement of the Patten faculty building, the first person who arrived to watch it burn -- at five in the morning -- was a Grace Joy renter. "We never could quite link it," Ruelas laments.

He wasn't the only one complaining. For years, neighbors and Oakland city employees have waged war on this dilapidated building, its troublesome tenants, and its owner, Grace Mangrobang. The lodge, they say, has been a neighborhood nuisance and epicenter for crime. It wasn't so much that it catered to the down-and-out as that the troublemakers tended to be people with special needs that Mangrobang wasn't, and isn't, licensed to provide.

Technically just a room-and-board house, Mangrobang's dilapidated castle attracted a clientele largely composed of substance abusers and the mentally ill. City staffers who sided with the neighbors say many of Mangrobang's tenants were Alameda County conservatees -- people under the county's legal supervision -- and were sent her way unofficially by staff and contractors of the county's own public health system.

The lodge, and places like it, did help fulfill a need within the mental health community: It would take in people who didn't need 24-7 supervision, but who weren't really capable of independent living either. Yet while there are licensed board-and-care homes within the county equipped to deal with such clients, Grace Joy Lodge isn't one of them.

Besides, what perhaps qualified as the county's solution had turned into the city's nightmare. Oakland planners and police and two area crime prevention councils have recorded extensive lists of problem behavior related to the lodge: girls followed home from school, women lewdly heckled by tenants, public urination and defecation, and petty theft from local merchants. Residents locked out after curfew would turn up at nearby homes begging for money or a place to stay, or would simply camp out in people's yards. Neighbors say the lodge also provided a customer base for the local drug trade, a situation made ripe for trouble by the youth center across the street and senior home one block away. And Grace Joy tenants often roamed the neighborhood looking disoriented. "Either they were high because they were off their medication, or high because they were on drugs," says Pat Ruelas, who joins her husband as the tour concludes on their front walkway.

After years of trying to convince Mangrobang to address the problems, the community had had enough. "Neighbors tried to say 'Straighten up and fly right,' but that hasn't happened," says Brendon Mulholland, chair of the Garfield crime prevention council. "Now we have to take a hard line and say 'Get out. '"

Their complaints prompted a crackdown -- a two-year investigation and inspection process led by the office of City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente -- that uncovered extensive permit and building safety violations, enough for the city to temporarily shutter Grace Joy Lodge in January. For the next few months at least, the building will remain empty. Its lower windows are now covered with plywood, the fencing along one side topped with barbed wire. But if Mangrobang finishes the required repairs on schedule, she could reopen this spring, and all the old problems, neighbors fear, will return. Meanwhile, the decaying castle has come to symbolize a dire unsolved problem: a county mental health system too overburdened to ensure the well-being of its own clients, overseeing a highly vulnerable population that has no place to go.


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