Standing tall at a whopping six foot five, longtime Street Spirit vendor Shawn Moses’ welcoming presence and warmth are immediately disarming. The sight of him leaning against his balcony railing, smiling softly toward the street, would suggest to the outside observer that he has lived at the East Oakland residence for his whole life. The cozy and homey interior of the one-bedroom only further supports that mistheory— the apartment is masterfully furnished with tons of tasteful and eclectic pieces that make the space feel distinctly like Shawn’s home.
“Everytime I see somebody that used to know me, they’re like you look great!” Moses said of moving into his new rent-controlled apartment, which he was placed into with the assistance of Bay Area Community Services in September 2020. Commonly referred to as BACS, the nonprofit is the Bay Area’s largest provider of housing solutions and is often contracted for and funded by municipal housing efforts.
“Just the pressure that’s lifted up off of you when you’re inside and protected—that just changes the look on your face. Being able to eat right and do the normal things that people take for granted can do someone very good.”
Prior to moving indoors, Moses spent two years in BACS-coordinated supportive housing at a West Oakland motel where the long-term living conditions were less than ideal. When he finally got off the housing waitlist and was offered his current living arrangement—which has his income-adjusted rent set at just $9 per month—he expected to be placed into similarly subpar conditions, as is often the case for those who are placed into affordable housing through city-sanctioned programs.
“A lot of people when they get a place, they get some old rundown apartment,” said Moses, who feels that he has been uniquely fortunate to have been placed into such a pleasant long-term living arrangement. “I’m just so, so, so, so, so blessed. I never thought I would have a whole house with a chimney. I’m still pinching myself.”
Though Moses is happily housed, he endured more than 10 years of homelessness in Oakland before reaching this point. He hopes that everyone on the street can have the opportunity he has to enjoy the basic comforts of life.
Moses was born in North Oakland in 1969 and grew up as the only boy in a house with three sisters. Though they moved neighborhoods and schools several times, Moses’ mother always kept the family in Oakland, the city she herself grew up in. He beamed as he detailed the numerous incredible feats that she had accomplished, including beating Wilma Rudolph at the qualifying trials for Olympic runners.
“She was supposed to go to the Olympics, but she had stomach pains and she went to the doctor and she was pregnant with my older sister,” said Moses. And so Shawn’s mother, his self-described hero, left her olympic potential behind to raise Shawn and his three sisters. She went on to get a job as a teaching assistant and a PE teacher at his school. He and his mother talk on the phone nearly every day.
Moses attended McClymonds High School, which he says was the most underserved and rowdy high school in the district at the time. He and his siblings excelled regardless, which he attributes to his mother’s strong prioritization of education. He credits her general commitment to creating a scholarly upbringing for developing his strengths, particularly in areas related to business and leadership.
“It was the smallest high school in the district,” Moses laughed as he recalled the details. “Even so, I started two businesses before I graduated there. I had four employees in the tenth grade.”
At sixteen, he had just finished working as a bank teller at a Bank of America on 20th and Broadway when he applied for and received two small business administration grants in order to start two different companies. The first was a lawn and gardening service; the second was a photographic advertising company—a brief entree into the working world before he graduated high school and started working in the copy industry, where he went on to have a fourteen-year career. At his peak in the industry, Moses was the Northern California Account Manager at Xerox and managed 215 employees. But when the stock market crashed in 2001, Moses and hoards of other working professionals were laid off.
“Every corporation was laying people off by the thousands,” said Moses. “That’s what got me to be homeless, you couldn’t even get an entry level job back then.” Unable to find work so that he could support himself and his daughter, Moses bounced around in Sacramento and various parts of Oakland living with family members until he eventually decided he needed to live on his own.
Not long after, he moved to the underpass on the 2600 block of Northgate Avenue, just north of Sycamore Street and helped start an encampment that became an organized community of over 50 people. Moses was notoriously resourceful, crafty, and involved in the community, and quickly earned the nickname “mayor” from fellow residents. Not only did he manage, coordinate, and distribute donations and drop-offs for his encampment, but he was also many people’s go-to for miscellaneous support.
“They called me the tent whisperer: I used to help everybody,” Moses recounted warmly. “I know how to set up any type of tent—“I’m so tall, I started making my own because if I go in my tent and try to change my clothes I might come back out wearing the darn tent!”
But for every positive memory he has from his time being unhoused, he acknowledged how much hardship everyone at his encampment, and encampments everywhere, have to face on a daily basis. Between the harsh cold, the dangerous and unsanitary living conditions, and the interpersonal tensions that arise on the street, Moses does not romanticize his time outside. He narrowly avoided losing his life in tent fires on three separate occasions. And he continues to mourn friends who die on the street at a rate that he believes is higher than the actual murder rate for the city as a whole.
“I’ve known at least 200 or more people that have passed on the streets; I doubt many people have even known 200 people that passed in their lifetime,” shared Moses. “I’ve been a homeless advocate ever since I really got to know what it is to be on the streets and stuff like that.”
Shawn is passionate about advocating for homeless issues by opening the eyes of the general public to the unjust realities of daily life as a homeless member of our community. He has spoken to the press numerous times to advocate for the rights of unhoused people, and says he has worked to support nonprofit and municipal interventions within the City of Oakland.
He also hopes that by selling Street Spirit, he can continue to engage people in discussions that bring light to the reality of the homeless experience. Moses was first introduced to the paper over ten years ago by his girlfriend at the time, who was a vendor herself. Now, Moses is a daily Street Spirit vendor, and selling the papers on Lakeshore Avenue in front of Arizmendi Pizza is his primary form of work.
He wears a sign pinned to his shirt that reads “Homeless Lives Matter Too” when he goes out to sell Street Spirit—the same message he had pinned to the front of his tent when he lived on Northgate Avenue. Even though he is now housed, he still takes the 57 bus to sell the paper on Lakeshore Avenue almost every day—it’s still important to him to advocate for the homeless community, which includes many of his friends and loved ones, who he still worries about often.
“I wish everybody out there who’s homeless can actually get to go through and achieve the same thing,” said Moses of finally being able to enjoy the comfort of his home. “It can be pretty brutal out there, it can be pretty damn rough and everyone deserves to have peace of mind.”
Street Spirits is a monthly feature in which someone who lives on the street tells us their story.
Sabrina Armaghan Kharrazi is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism and a former staff member of the Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center in Berkeley.