It might be instructive, amid all this discussion about homelessness and emergency shelters, to get the perspective of the world's best-known homeless advocate, a man who was briefly a transient himself. He was not available for an interview, but a spokesman, Matthew son of Alphaeus, did provide a written statement on the issue:
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."
Notice that Jesus of Nazareth did not add, "I was a political hot potato so you initiated another study."
Jesus, on one memorable occasion as a minor, was lucky that he and his parents were able to bed down with some amiable livestock. Many homeless folk in Bakersfield are sleeping on sidewalks and in doorways. And here comes winter.
Homelessness, with all its causes and consequences, is California's most urgent concern: Across the state, at any given time, 130,000 people can be so categorized. Its facets include poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, inadequate veterans' services, family dysfunction, domestic violence, sex abuse and a pervasive shortage of affordable housing.
Those problems must be approached individually and as interconnected elements, but in the meantime it's cold outside.
City Councilman Willie Rivera objects to the immediate purchase and conversion of a huge, underutilized cotton warehouse into an emergency shelter in his southeast Bakersfield ward. He correctly states that the city must carefully consider the decision; better options might be out there.
But, as City Councilman Bob Smith pointed out Wednesday night, shortly before the council voted to delay further action on a proposed shelter for almost three months, "there will be no perfect place." And, I will add, it's cold.
City Councilman Ken Weir suggests that "drug addicts" and "people with no respect for the law" should be excluded from any emergency shelter the city might open. Surely he is aware that a substantial number of unsheltered homeless people have substance abuse issues — 46 percent, according to a recent Los Angeles Times study. Bar those people from your city shelter and you suddenly have a lot of vacant bunks — and hundreds of people still out on the street.
And what should we make of "people with no respect for the law"? Some 51 percent of the unsheltered homeless, according to the same survey, suffer from some form of mental illness, including PTSD. I'm guessing that could help explain some of that perceived lack of respect.
Now this new city shelter is really starting to empty out. And it's still getting colder.
Yes, it would be foolish to build this emergency shelter in the first adequately sized property that becomes available. Location within the community matters. Public safety, effects on property values, proximity to existing services — all are considerations. In the case of Ward 1, Councilman Rivera is already waist-deep in a long-running and often frustrating effort to lift the Cottonwood-Lakeview area out of poverty and blight, and placing a large emergency shelter just down the road from the focus of that work could have real and symbolic impacts.
And so we have undeniably competing considerations: Immediate need, incomplete short- and long-term planning, the reality that no site will be ideal, a lack of understanding of some of the issues, justifiable NIMBYism and shortages of empathy.
We Bakersfield residents like to describe ourselves as friendly and big-hearted, but those characteristics have been getting harder to spot since the homeless question started monopolizing headlines and ratcheting up rhetoric.
Ron Vietti, pastor of Valley Bible Fellowship, took heat for a Facebook post in which he urged city officials to choose a location other than the 70,000-square-foot Calcot Ltd. warehouse on East Brundage Lane, near his church (and in Rivera's ward). When online criticism ensued, calling out Vietti for failing to honor a basic Christian tenet — service to the downtrodden — he deleted the post, swore off Facebook and sought to clarify that his main objection was really the proposed shelter's size, not so much its proximity.
At least he was entirely civil about it. One reader, commenting on Sam Morgen's article on last week's City Council meeting, wrote, "This state has gone downhill. It should be a crime to be homeless." Another reader, in a now-deleted comment, suggested that street people be shot. Ah, the courage of anonymity.
The vast majority of story commenters, however, have supported the prompt establishment of an emergency shelter. That was also the case at last week's City Council meeting, where a succession of local residents went to the public microphone. Among the supporters was Bill Walker, director of Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, the county's mental health agency, who grasps the depth and immediacy of the problem.
A new emergency shelter is, by itself, not the answer. Researchers at last week's California Economic Summit in Fresno suggested that communities adopt four strategies: create local accountability standards based on homelessness data; decrease the inflow of at-risk people into homelessness; address those in crisis on the streets now; and provide exit strategies that involve permanent housing.
Emergency shelter construction is only the third item in that four-part approach, but it's what's most visible and can most immediately be addressed. The problem demands interconnected answers in all four areas, but first things first: It's still getting colder.
You never know, in the course of saving lives, who might emerge from the ruins. Some homeless transient, nursed back to stability, could go on to change the world. It has happened before.