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Oakland Council considers "Safe Work Zones" for encampment sweeps

A snapshot of West Oakland's Wood Street Encampment in 2021, which has since been closed
Scott Hess
Scott Hess
Flickr / Creative Commons
A snapshot of West Oakland's Wood Street Encampment in 2021, which has since been closed.

At Tuesday's City Council meeting, lawmakers discussed a new ordinance that is intended to protect city workers from harassment, and make it easier for them to do their jobs. It claims that workers have been assaulted or harassed while cleaning and closing encampments, maintaining essential infrastructure, and otherwise doing their work.

According to the proposed ordinance, a “Safe Work Zone” is defined as an area demarcated with physical boundaries or clear signage. Those who enter or refuse to leave safe work zones could be cited for a misdemeanor.

A coalition of eight legal groups and advocacy organizations wrote a letter to the city council in opposition to the ordinance. They said it would pose a threat to individuals’ constitutional rights, under the First, Fourth, Eighth and 14th Amendments.

The letter claims the ordinance targets homeless people, as well as their advocates, by limiting access to encampments during closures. This could make it more difficult for residents to pack up their belongings and advocate for themselves. They also argue the ordinance would not meaningfully contribute to the safety of public works employees, who already have the authority to set up safe work zones, and are accompanied by police officers during sweeps.

Advocates are also concerned about the potential for the ordinance to limit public accountability of government officials — who are often accused of failing to uphold their own policies during encampment closures.

The Oakland City Council heard a similar Safe Work Zone Ordinance in November last year, which was ultimately withdrawn.

Alastair Boone is the Co-Editor in Chief of Street Spirit newspaper, and a member of KALW's 2024 Audio Academy.