Louis Gill recognized that the occasion was auspicious enough to demand precisely the right words, and those words weren't coming. "You mind if I walk? It helps," he said, and he spun out of his chair to pace and compose. Except his office was so jammed with furniture and files, he couldn't do much more than pivot in a circle.
After seven years of limbo, the Bakersfield Homeless Center had finally been given the green light to move ahead with plans for a new, larger, more logically located shelter. The mix of joy, relief, excitement and determination that this realization inspired in him required succinct eloquence, and finding that eloquence required some mild calisthenics.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority had finally come to an agreement with the Homeless Center to purchase its 2.7 acre campus on East Truxtun Avenue: One day, not soon, the long-debated bullet train will plow right through Gill's office. Long before that happens, the homeless center's board of directors will have applied the $6 million purchase price to construction of a new homeless center with more beds, more programs, more elbow room and better access to services.
The location is not set in stone — a couple of BHC-owned sites are under consideration, or the board could purchase an entirely different one — but something will have to be nailed down soon if Gill's timeline is to be realized. The agreement with the Rail Authority allows the center to stay for five more years, but Gill would like to see construction on the new center begin within two years and a grand opening within three.
"We have unprecedented pain in the community from people suffering homelessness," Gill said. "And now we have a once in a generation opportunity to respond.
"We are not a community that stands by when people are hurting. We are a community that pulls together. And when somebody puts their hand up and says 'I need help,' people come. So I am very excited for us."
The agreement with the Rail Authority, finalized in October and announced Tuesday morning, ought to bring back community donations that had dried up in 2012 after the Rail Authority announced its intention, backed by the power of eminent domain, to buy the land. Why, the community seemed to say, should we donate for capital improvements if the campus will eventually be razed?
Community support becomes more important than ever, however. A new homeless center, of perhaps five acres, will cost substantially more than $6 million. Gill wasn't prepared to say how much more: He has no firm site plan upon which to base an estimate, although it could provide beds for 300 men, women and children, perhaps eventually expanding to as many as 350. The current shelter has room — barely — for about 200.
He and Homeless Center staff have been touring other shelters around the country for more than a year, looking at other campus plans and organizational structures, and Gill said the experience fed their collective outlook.
He was impressed with a shelter in Dallas called The Bridge and made note of campus layouts that placed buildings on the perimeter in order to create outdoor space in the center.
He also promised to rebuild the Homeless Center's organizational structure as part of the transition to the new campus.
"In order to meet the need in the community, we're not afraid to look at every part of our organization and restructure whatever is necessary," he said. "Being afraid to do something new only gets you the same problems."
The news comes at an impactful time in the region's quest to manage and minimize homelessness. Wednesday night the Bakersfield City Council will consider the placement of a so-called low barrier emergency homeless shelter on 7.5 acres of property at 1900 East Brundage Lane, which it had tentatively agreed to purchase for $3.83 million. Protests are expected at Wednesday night's council meeting.
Separately, Kern County Supervisors recently approved a low barrier homeless shelter at Golden State Highway and O Street with two buildings: one with 150 beds and the other for services and administration. The idea is to serve homeless people who typically do not, or cannot access traditional shelters.
Gill noted that the East Truxtun facility must continue to fully serve the needs of its temporary residents for three years, tempting as it might be to put away dollars exclusively for the new project.
"It's not like there's fewer people asking for assistance," he said. "... It's got to be hot showers, it's got to be hot meals, it's got to be clean laundry. There's just stuff that has to occur as we care for people now. But our focus will not be in dramatic changes to this campus. It will be on the next."
If Gill allows himself to dream about an office in which he can actually pace, that seems OK too.