The temporary housing model at the University Inn is shifting for the second time in three years, and residents — some who formerly lived in People’s Park — are bracing for possible changes at the end of the year.
The University Inn, formerly known as the Rodeway Inn, was converted into temporary housing under the Project Roomkey program the state launched in 2020. Residents who lived in the West Berkeley freeway encampments moved there first before UC Berkeley and the city leased the hotel to close an encampment at People’s Park.
Over 100 people from the park passed through the 42-bed hotel since last spring, according to the city, which is well over UC Berkeley’s original census of 64 homeless residents at People’s Park in April 2022.
It points to an intense need for transitional and permanent housing in the Bay Area, where overall unsheltered homelessness increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though Berkeley’s census dropped by 5%. In Alameda County, the homeless population increased by 22% from 2019 to 2022 (though at a slower rate than in previous years).
As part of its strategy to address homelessness, the city of Berkeley is applying for about $15 million in state funding to purchase the University Inn and convert it into a permanent supportive housing model under Project Homekey. The University Inn has cost about $7 million to operate since last spring, according to Josh Jacobs, the city’s homeless services coordinator.
The city and university are currently paying for a lease at the inn through the end of the year, and the city will submit a new application on April 24.
About 70% of the initial group are housed or very close to being housed, according to UC Berkeley, while about 34% of all people coming into University Inn since May 2022 are now housed.
“A lot of people who were staying in the park were homeless for a very long time, and had severe mental health, physical health [issues] and disabilities, so they qualified for our highest level of housing,” Jacobs said of the people who found placements. “That was the majority outcome for folks.”
Berkeley homeless workers are still finalizing details for the new program application, including the contract for its management (currently operated by Abode Services), but Jacobs said current residents will have the option to stay in place through the transition.
But it will transition into the county’s larger Coordinated Entry system instead of limiting lodging to former People’s Park residents. UC Berkeley will discontinue funding if the state application is approved.
The inn is a 'revolving door,' but it's a better alternative than the streets for some
Twitch Lanes, 20, who goes by her nickname, has been living at the University Inn since last November, when she and her partner, Jacob Clakley, chose to move out of People's Park with the help of UC Berkeley's social worker, Ari Neulight.
She said she's experienced sexual harassment and theft while living at the hotel, and, as a woman, doesn't typically feel safe without her partner nearby. She's lost count of how many "weird days" she's seen at the University Inn and said she maintains a small circle of friends at the hotel (mostly people she knew at the park), but doesn't go out of her way to socialize.
"This place is like a revolving door — a cycle of people coming in and out." Lanes said. "I want to get my own place, but because of my past — it's hard for me to."
Housing has been stalled because she's not in touch with her family in Sacramento, and she has an auto-immune disease that slows her down. It's been a challenge to organize her documents to apply for housing, but housing navigators have helped her take steps to enter the county's Coordinated Entry system.
Lanes and Clakley are both artists and hope to move together when one gets a spot. Clakley, 39, has been living on the Berkeley streets off and on since he was 21, but he's never had temporary, non-congregate housing like the hotel before.
He prefers it to the park, but he — like many others — has been waiting for the right housing offer. He said he knows people who live at the Golden Bear Inn, another Berkeley hotel recently converted to permanent housing, but the units are smaller than the rooms he and Lanes live in now.
A full-sized fridge, a stove and a kitchen in an apartment would go a long way, Clakley said. But a modified hotel where he has to pay rent for fewer supportive resources is a "step back, not a step forward" and doesn't make sense for him.
"I wouldn't mind from here, going to an apartment and [start paying for my own rent and house goods]. I'm totally happy to pay for those things — it's the adult thing to do," Clakley said. "I'm not trying to move into another hotel that's like this and have to pay for everything too."
If he doesn't get the right housing offer before the hotel converts into permanent supportive housing, he's willing to go back on the streets to wait for an apartment but would rather stay housed.
"As I get older, I'm like, 'I'm ready to stop sleeping on the concrete,'" Clakely said. "I feel like some people who've gone through this process; they'll just take whatever. But I feel like I still have my sense of self-dignity left."
Advocates say the state-funded hotel programs need more oversight
State funding flowed into temporary housing models like Roomkey and Homekey when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, creating an unprecedented collaboration between regional service providers.
But formerly homeless residents and their advocates have been fighting to make sure these hotels are safe and livable while many await transition into permanent, subsidized housing — of which there is a chronic shortage statewide.
Ian Cordova Morales, an advocate with Where Do We Go Berkeley, has been in dozens of back-and-forths with Abode Services over the last several years of the pandemic regarding its program in Berkeley and the Quality Inn in Oakland.
The group published a report on the conditions at Rodeway last year when West Berkeley encampment residents were living there, and Morales said conditions improved afterward. Recently, advocates have also claimed that Abode utilizes "lockouts," penalizing residents for breaking the rules by not allowing them access to their rooms.
Bronwyn Hogan, vice president of community relations for Abode, said the nonprofit does not do "lockouts" at any of its sites. Residents do not have keys to their rooms because it's interim housing, she said, and the 24-hour security team and shelter monitor open doors for guests as policy.
"In rare cases, usually involving violence or property destruction that is repeated or egregious, a manager will review the case with city of Berkeley staff and request the guest is exited from the program," Hogan said. City staff have to approve an exit in this case.
Nineteen people (or 23%) left the University Inn and returned to unsheltered homelessness over the last year, according to Jacobs, and about half were told to exit due to program violations. One additional person was incarcerated during their time at Rodeway.
In any case, Morales said it's unsustainable for small advocacy groups to be tasked with monitoring resident complaints and having the burden of proving their case to service providers.
He emphasized that Alameda County needs to implement oversight over all temporary housing programs.
"These programs are super important — and it's definitely a good alternative to nothing. But at the same time there has to be [a grievance process]," Morales said. "What we're asking from them is to have some kind of professionals coming in and following up on these complaints and investigating them."
'One of the best things to come out of the pandemic,' advocates, residents and officials agree
The closure and disruption of homeless encampment communities have been shown to have wide-ranging consequences, especially in cases where alternate housing isn't offered, but the majority of people involved in the transition of local encampments to temporary, non-congregate housing say it's been a positive change.
The hotels offer private rooms for residents. Paired with supportive housing resources, like housing navigation, meals and job services, it can help people get back on their feet after an extended time of homelessness.
As temporary options, they're a good stepping stone to apartments, residents say. But city leaders are still leaning on the hotels as a permanent option amid the housing crisis.
"They're hotels, they're not designed for long-term living," Jacobs said. "If I had all of the money and all of the planning [ability], I would make a city that's mixed-use and for people of all types — but we don't have that option."
Finding permanent, subsidized housing that works for all residents is an ongoing challenge.
One of the priorities for many people is staying in the communities where they've grown up, lived and worked.
Eric Morales does janitorial services and works at the Berkeley Drop-In Center. He's lived at the University Inn for a year and has been holding out at the hotel while he waits for the right housing options.
"I feel cool right here, but this is not what I want," Morales said. "I want to cook, I want a place with one bedroom and a kitchen."
The lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area makes it challenging to search for apartments outside the county's housing process, but he's been scanning the options.
"I'm working for my community; this is my thing," he said. "I don't want to go away from Berkeley. This is my city, this is my community."
This story was updated after publication to include some additional data from UC Berkeley.