With tears in his eyes, 34-year-old David Schaffer gave thanks to the Kern County Homeless Collaborative Tuesday for giving him the opportunity to re-start his life after being in and out of jail for the past decade.
The homeless collaborative helped Schaffer find a place to live and now is helping him find a job and sign up for a court-ordered anger management class.
Before that, "every time I was out of jail, I was put back into society with a sense of hopelessness and asking myself where would I go next," Schaffer said.
It's programs like those offered to Schaffer that were credited Tuesday with a 20 percent drop in the number of homeless found during the 2013 Point-in-Time Count of the Homeless conducted in January. That was from 1,439 in 2011 to 1,158 this year.
Some 140 volunteers conducted their count over 24 hours and throughout Kern County.
The drop in numbers was attributed to the collaboration of more than 20 agencies working to end homelessness.
"Two years ago, we only had 19 agencies that were members, and now we have 26, so that is such an amazing and great contribution to our main goal of housing every homeless person out there," said Louis Medina, homelessness project manager for the United Way of Kern County.
The new programs range from partners helping the homeless more quickly receive Social Security benefits to giving them a hot lunch and bag of groceries.
Emerging from years of drug addiction, Schaffer never imagined receiving any assistance, especially somewhere to live.
He was homeless numerous times, living alongside the Kern River in Oildale with minimal belongings. Now he lives in an apartment with his fiancee.
"You're hungry with no change of clothes and you have nowhere to go but the streets and see drivers driving by on their way to work judging you," Schaffer said of his old life.
But after meeting Mary Sawyer, founder of Portfolio Property Management, a real estate firm, his life changed completely. Schaffer and Sawyer were in the same elevator at a probation office and it was there that Schaffer learned about the homeless collaborative.
"You have all these different people coming together to help out people that are in the streets," Schaffer said. "And their work is commendable because they don't have to be helping but they do it because they care."
Sawyer has been a part of the homeless collaborative for a year and a half. She has offered to rent 1,000 apartments in Bakersfield to individuals who otherwise would be denied one because of their financial status.
"We house them first and then work with them on the rest of the tools they will need to get back on track." Sawyer said.
On another positive note, the count found an approximately 22 percent reduction of homeless veterans in Kern compared to 2011.
Many new programs that prioritize housing and work to re-integrate homeless veterans have been implemented over the last year. According to Medina, these programs have successfully secured some $800,000 in Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs and other grants.
Although the census showed a decline in homelessness, it also proved that high rates of chronic substance abuse in Kern still challenge the homeless collaborative.
For the first time, the group this year included a "drug of choice" question, according to Medina. The choices were alcohol, marijuana, cocaine/crack, meth, heroin, prescription drugs and other. The results showed a high rise in alcohol and methamphetamine abuse.
Schaffer, well-versed in those problems, said he hopes to mentor others.
"I've been trying to help friends that I know to go to chuch so that they can see where I am and where they could be, too," he said.