Love in the Time Of Sweeps: A Couple’s Fight to Find Shelter Together

by Bradley Penner and Alastair Boone

One couple’s struggle to access resources after an encampment sweep sheds light on one way the coordinated entry process breaks down

On the morning of Monday, August 8, 2023, Shawn and Genea woke up in Mosswood Park to the sound of a track loader rumbling outside their tent. As the loader’s claw trudged through a neighbor’s possessions along the Webster Street fence line, the City of Oakland’s Encampment Management Team approached Shawn and Genea with law enforcement close behind.

“I woke up to the sound of beeping and heard someone say, ‘Is anyone in this tent?’” Shawn recalled. “I poked my head out so they’d see me. They told us they were here to clean up, that whatever stuff we needed—whatever we wanted to keep—to start packing it up… That’s when I got out of the tent and noticed they had already bulldozed our other tent with all of my stuff in it.”

A week prior, the City of Oakland had posted a notice to vacate throughout Mosswood Park for the week of August 8–10, warning of imminent closure of all encampments spanning from Webster Street to Broadway. 

Born and raised in the East Bay, Shawn and Genea have been together since 2020. They have spent the past two years living in Mosswood Park after a series of negative experiences in the City’s shelter system, including separation from each other through the City’s coordinated entry system, write-ups for conduct violations they felt were unfair, and being assaulted on shelter grounds. After moving back to the streets, they formed a small community with the other unhoused people who have been living along Webster Street since the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As they have watched others return to the park after stints in congregate shelter or the City’s community cabin program, Shawn and Genea have become increasingly skeptical of Oakland’s ability to provide safe, adequate alternatives to living unsheltered. 

“When you go through these programs, it takes time,” Shawn said. “You’re on the [housing voucher] waiting list for so long, there’s nothing you can do but sit there and wait. It gets to a point in these shelters where they suggest being apart or being in separate areas, and she’s not comfortable with that. I told her I would never leave her out here to fend for herself.”

However, Shawn and Genea want to find housing. And left with two suitcases and a bicycle left after losing most of their belongings during the sweep on August 8, they felt they had no choice but to try and begin the housing assessment process. Employees of Operation Dignity—a nonprofit mobile outreach team that is contracted by the City to connect unhoused residents to available shelter options—were in the park on the morning of the sweep. They offered to take Shawn and Genea to a nearby assessment center to start the process of getting indoors.

Around 9 a.m., Shawn and Genea loaded their remaining possessions into a van and were driven up the street to the Towne House Wellness Center, a facility off Piedmont Avenue contracted to conduct and oversee shelter assessments for Alameda County’s coordinated entry program. Towne House provides walk-in services for those experiencing homelessness, unemployment and mental health crises, but operates independently from Operation Dignity, which brings unhoused people to the facility. 

“Operation Dignity took us up there and gave us their phone number saying they would pick us up once we did the assessment, that they were going back for our campmate. But they didn’t come back with anybody. There was no communication between them and the assessment center.”

Shawn and Genea waited at Towne House for over four hours. They say that during their wait, staff asked them to move from the front porch where they’d be in sight of passersby, that a staff member was overtly rude when they asked for the time, and that a free lunch was not provided on time. Though assessments do not begin until noon, Shawn and Genea say that nobody from Towne House or Operation Dignity told them that, or gave them a sense of how the process would work.

Discouraged by the long wait, lack of coordination between Operation Dignity and BACS, and hunger setting in, Genea decided to forgo assessment and head back to Mosswood Park around 1 p.m. to find food and check on the remaining residents at their camp. A local mutual aid group was handing her a pizza when she noticed a member of Operation Dignity standing in the place where their tent had sat just hours before.

“I grew up in the foster care system, I know how this works,” she says. “Social services should be there to connect you with the other groups they’re connected to, not leave you on the curb outside.” 

“As far as I see it, the City doesn’t hold up their end of the responsibility as much as they want us to,” Genea says. “They remove us and our stuff, then expect us to do the rest of the work.”

A representative from Bay Area Community Services (BACS), which operates Towne House, said this is not how the assessment process is supposed to work. Of Shawn and Genea’s experience, a BACS representative said: 

“We cannot confirm the details of this account, but it sounds like there was a miscommunication and we encourage them to visit again—or for anybody who is in need of community support and housing navigation assistance to stop by. Assessments are available Monday to Friday, noon to 3 p.m., so when people arrive earlier we encourage them to use our computers, get some food or coffee, join one of our peer-led groups, spend time in the garden, and connect with other community members until assessments start.”

Street Spirit also reached out to the City of Oakland and Operation Dignity for comment, but did not hear back. We will update this story if we do.

The coordinated entry system is made up of a series of assessments that help BACS or Alameda County staff to determine what resources are best suited for the person being assessed. They include questions to determine what resources the person is interested in, and based on their circumstances, which they are most likely to qualify for. When successful, coordinated entry can connect people to domestic violence programs, health resources, short-term housing such as safe parking programs and transitional housing, or longer-term housing such as affordable programs. It is intended to categorize a person’s needs and funnel them into the pathway designed to meet them.

However, many feel that the resources provided are not sufficient, or they simply never complete their assessments. Unhoused people are often described as “service resistant.” But often, those who seek services find that they are not accessible, adequate or safe. Both Shawn and Genea want to find permanent housing, but are wary to relive the hardships—and potential separation—they will face in the meantime. 

Soon after their arrival in Mosswood Park, Shawn and Genea had been accepted into the coordinated entry program and placed in two separate sheds at the Mandela Community Cabins, a shelter site adjacent to the East Bay Municipal Utility District’s Wastewater Treatment Plant in West Oakland. Secluded from one another and their community in Mosswood, and with a limit on the amount of property they could bring to the site, the couple kept a tent in the park to store their belongings and maintain a backup plan if either of them were to leave the cabins.

Their preparation paid off. After Genea was nearly attacked during an altercation with another cabin resident, the couple decided to leave the cabins and go back to the park, which felt safer. Even though the resident received a writeup for violating the cabin’s code of conduct, they returned to Mosswood after only two months.

“Some people choose to live on the streets because that’s a better way to make it while they wait. And that’s where we are,” Shawn said. “But someone once told me when you get used to living out here you get used to dying out here. I’m not trying to get used to dying out here.”

For all the trials the couple has faced as residents of Mosswood Park over the past two years, Shawn remains hopeful for the future. 

“It’s not permanent, it’s temporary. We’re finding a way to get back on our feet. We don’t want to be in this situation. But so long as we have hope and pray we find a way out of this—we will get out of this.”

Bradley Penner and Alastair Boone are the Co-Editors in Chief of Street Spirit.