There's a mini-city under construction on M Street at 29th, and it looks like a promising blueprint for the care, feeding and management of a population that, increasingly, has been on our collective minds: The homeless.
The county's $3 million low-barrier homeless navigation center, due to open in late February, does not represent the entire answer but it looks like it could be an important part of it.
Two tent-like structures, grayish on the outside, brilliant silver on the inside — a passerby might think he's looking at a couple of docked UFOs — are nearing completion in an industrial area just north of the city's downtown core. The larger of the two will provide sleeping quarters for 150 people, and potentially more if stacked bunks are later deemed necessary. The smaller of the two buildings will serve as an administrative office and intake center.
Ryan Alsop, the county's chief administration officer, gave me a personal tour last week.
"It's not Disneyland," he said, "But it's what we need and what we set out to do."
Alsop has been frustrated by delays created by weather and a big surprise discovered during the excavation process: a large pipe that threw things temporarily into reverse.
"So we went from a January target date to mid-February, and now it's looking like we're getting pushed back maybe two or three weeks more into the end of February," he said. "But I'm not freaking out about it. This would typically be an 18-month construction project and it's been squeezed into three months. It's being done at record speed. But we would have liked to have it open."
The facility, situated next door to railroad tracks, the fire marshal's building and county veterans services, sits on about six acres, only half of which will be used for now. An area near the tracks has been set aside for a row of about 50 diagonally parked cars to accommodate overnight parking — what we might call car campers.
"In and around the downtown area, whether it's in residential areas or in commercial areas, you have a lot of people you'll find sleeping in their cars because they have nowhere else to go," Alsop said. "So this allows our law enforcement officials to say, you know, mister, I'm sorry — You can't spend the night here, but we do have a nice place for you to spend the night. You can stay in your car, we're not going to ask you questions, and you will have security."
Here's where the "navigation" part of the name comes in: The shelter will be staffed by employees of Kern Medical, Behavioral Health and Recovery, the Housing Authority, Employers Training Resource, the Sheriff's Department and Community Action Partnership of Kern, or CAP-K, a nonprofit that administers more than a dozen programs for needy and underserved individuals and their families. Volunteers, including groups from Canyon Hills Church's CityServe and Flood Ministries, will also help.
The facility's proximity to the county veterans' service center is fortuitous.
"We have a lot of homeless vets, so when you talk about wraparound, one of the spokes on that wheel is veteran services and they're located right here, and so they have great access," Alsop said.
The tents, constructed of a polyvinyl fluoride or polyurethane "membrane" over thick fiberglass insulation and an aluminum substructure, are manufactured by Sprung Instant Structures Inc. of Salt Lake City, Utah. Sprung-manufactured homeless navigation centers are already in Toronto, Portland, San Diego, Fresno and elsewhere.
"It's a high tension fabric tent with all the amenities — HVAC, electricity, plumbing. Everything is all built in," Alsop said.
The facility will be patrolled by private security on a continuous basis, well lit and surveilled by cameras. Other areas will be used for the secure storage of personal belongings and kennels for animals. It will also have permanent showers and restrooms.
The county looks to be using perhaps three or three and a half of the property's six acres — land previously used by the general services and parks departments — so the facility has room to grow. That will require the conversion of some existing buildings and the demolition of others.
"We can make a game-time decision on that (expansion) when we'll see how we're doing," Alsop said. "We want to have some proof of concept and understand what it is we're dealing with. Then we can make a decision" about growing.
Will the county's homeless navigation center truly put a dent in Bakersfield's homeless problem? We should have a better idea in a few weeks.