A group of many Caltrans employees in neon vests picking up debris at the Wood Street encampment sweep under the highway.
The new proposal alarms advocates, who say that witnessing sweeps is crucial to protecting the rights—and the possessions—of unhoused people. (Alastair Boone)

Oakland officials want to give city work crews more power and protection when they’re closing and cleaning homeless camps. The administration is seeking an OK from the City Council to erect barriers around work areas at encampments, as well as at parks, construction sites, and other public places, making it a crime for anyone to enter the area if they’re ordered not to. City staff say these “safe work zones” would prevent employees from being harassed or assaulted by members of the public. 

But advocates for unhoused people say the proposal would criminalize homeless residents and prevent others from offering support when the city closes camps.

The proposal was scheduled to be heard Monday by the City Council’s Public Works Committee—which can decide whether to send it to the full council for a vote—but the meeting was canceled because not enough councilmembers showed up. (The discussion has been rescheduled for the December 12 meeting.)

“Several incidents have occurred where staff assigned to and engaged in their regular duties have been threatened and physically assaulted by individuals in and surrounding their work areas,” Oakland Public Works (OPW) Director Harold Duffey wrote in a report to council.

Duffey’s report describes an incident in July when someone reportedly spat on a worker attempting to close part of the Wood Street encampment, and another in August when an “advocate” allegedly threatened a staffer working at an East Oakland camp. Lastly, it mentions an October incident when someone allegedly threatened two maintenance workers with a “sharp object” while they were inspecting a sewer.

“They were traumatized by the incident and unable to complete the necessary inspection,” Duffey wrote.

The “safe work zones” could be marked by caution tape, chalk, spray paint, fencing, and other materials, or simply by a verbal notice from the workers. Anyone who refuses a police officer’s order to leave the zone could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

“This is about criminalizing unhoused people and their advocates,” said Talya Husbands-Hankin, co-founder of the advocacy organization Love and Justice in the Streets. “I fully support worker safety, but this isn’t really about worker safety. [It’s] clearly an effort to erode accountability and eliminate witnesses from sweeps.” 

Husbands-Hankin regularly observes encampment closures and offers support to residents—often, she noted, at the request of city staff, because they know she’s built trust with people living at camps who might be going through a crisis or hesitant to move to a shelter. A couple weeks ago, she arrived at a Mosswood Park encampment closure in the pouring rain, offering ponchos and pizza to the people being kicked out.

“The city’s not providing food, not providing water,” said Husbands-Hankin, who’s concerned the safe work zones would prevent her from doing so.

The policy was created by OPW along with the Oakland Police Department and the city attorney’s office. Duffey’s report notes that the workers performing tasks in public are often responding to assignments from higher-ups, yet they’re the ones in harm’s way if a member of the public acts violently.

Ariana Casanova, an organizer with SEIU 1021, which represents about 1,000 city workers in OPW and other departments, said the union wants to see the proposal pass.

“The union supports safe work zones for workers and also would like to advocate for a vast amount of housing options and service needs for the unhoused,” she said in an email. Casanova said SEIU 1021 has been asking the city to be more responsive to issues of worker safety and wants the administration “to work more collaboratively” with the union. But a lawyer who represents unhoused people in the East Bay believes the work-zone policy is unconstitutional.

“I think what they’re contemplating is a violation of the rights of people experiencing homelessness and a violation of the First Amendment rights of people who’ve made it a point to hold public officials accountable during these sweeps,” said EmilyRose Johns of from the firm Siegel, Yee, Brunner & Mehta.

The city recently settled a lawsuit brought by a group of unhoused people represented by Johns’ firm, which alleged that the city acted illegally during encampment closures, including by OPW destroying and losing residents’ belongings. Under the settlement, the city was required to pay the homeless residents $250,000 and make changes to how they conduct closures and store possessions. 

“Of course we don’t learn about any of that unless people can be there to observe,” Johns said. She said workers can already put up cones around work sites, and police already have the power to respond to threats or actions against workers, including by making arrests.

One of the cases referenced in the staff report, where a Wood Street resident allegedly spat at a worker and threw something at a city vehicle, resulted in the controversial arrest and tasing of the man. Johns said the district attorney never brought charges in that case. 

This story was originally published in The Oaklandside.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside.