For this Berkeley woman, the University Avenue fire has left her with no place to live

Marsha Tolliver had to leave the room she was renting and was forced to choose between buying a uniform for work or paying for a hotel.

Apartment resident and evacuee Marsha Tolliver after receiving a blanket and slippers from the Red Cross. Tolliver left her apartment after police told her to evacuate. She forgot her shoes. Nov. 21, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
Apartment resident and evacuee Marsha Tolliver after receiving a blanket and slippers from the Red Cross on Nov. 21, the night the fire broke out at 2067 University Ave. Tolliver left her apartment after police told her to evacuate. She forgot her shoes.  Photo: Pete Rosos

It’s been four nights since Marsha Tolliver had to flee her room on University Avenue after a fire broke out next door in a seven-story building under construction — and she hasn’t slept in a bed since.

The order to evacuate came so quickly that Tolliver, 66, only had time to grab a bag with her computer as she left her dorm-style room at 2057 University Ave. She didn’t have time to put on any shoes, so she walked barefoot in the cold night to the Red Cross van set up a block away. The volunteer there gave her some green slippers, a blanket and about $400 for a hotel room.

But Tolliver was in a quandary. She needed a uniform to go to work at her security job in San Francisco and she hadn’t stuffed any clothes into her bag. But the only money she had was the cash from the Red Cross. So, Tolliver decided to buy a white shirt, black pants and shoes with the money that was supposed to go to a hotel. That meant she didn’t have any place to sleep — and hasn’t since Saturday.

“I stayed in the street near my apartment,” Tolliver told Berkeleyside on Wednesday.


About 20 people were displaced from the three-story apartment building that Tolliver lives in, and seven needed shelter assistance, said Assistant Fire Chief Keith May. The apartment has not reopened and probably has suffered some water damage, he said.

The fire at 2067 University Ave. broke out around 5:30 p.m. on Saturday and quickly grew to a six-alarm blaze that required mutual aid from around Alameda County. While the fire is now under control, it is not completely out, said May. There was a flare-up this morning. Crews will remain on scene overnight.

The building is so damaged that no fire inspectors will be allowed to enter, said May. That means the Berkeley Fire Department may never know how, why or where the flames erupted.

“We are not putting anyone in that building,” said May. “It is too unsafe.”

Tolliver has been sleeping on the streets since the Saturday fire, she said. She has taken naps sitting on a bench for two to three hours a night, then hopping on a BART train around 7 p.m. (the trains stop at 9 p.m. these days because of reduced ridership), and then going to work at 11 p.m. Her security shift ends at 7 a.m.

“It really doesn’t bother me because it happened to me before,” she said.

“It” is not having a permanent place to stay. Tolliver said she lived on the streets once before and, while that experience was difficult, it’s easier the second time around. Tolliver has been living in a single room at 2057 University Ave. for about four and a half years, she said.

Tonight will be different. Red Cross gave Tolliver a hotel voucher and she will be checking in to the Travelodge for two nights, she said. She will go to work tonight but has Thanksgiving off.

Berkeleyside contacted Raj Properties, the company that manages Tolliver’s building. They said they hope to place Tolliver in another vacant unit, starting Dec. 1, until her room is repaired. The company will also reimburse her for any of her personal hotel expenses.

Tolliver will celebrate the holiday in her hotel room, she said. She plans to buy either a TV dinner or turkey drumsticks to eat.

She told her daughter, who is out of town, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll do the best I can do.”

You can help Marsha Tolliver through this GoFundMe campaign.

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Cityside. Email: frances@citysidejournalism.org.