For 81-year-old Kern County resident Chuck Jensen, the recent uptick in homelessness throughout the county brought back memories of his childhood.
“I grew up in Seattle in the early 1940s,” he wrote in an email to The Californian. “My grandmother was a sweet lady that gave any transient food when they knocked on her door. And there were a lot of them that did that.”
He said a chalk mark on the curb in front of the house indicated to transient people who passed through that his grandmother was an “easy touch.”
“It appears that Bakersfield has a BUNCH of chalk marks all over downtown,” he wrote.
But Jensen has trouble fathoming where the surge in homelessness has come from.
“Are they prior homeowners here in Bakersfield?” he asked. “What brings them here? Why do they stay?”
Jensen is not alone in his questions. He, along with many Bakersfield residents, say they see many more people holding cardboard signs next to stoplights and sleeping in dirty clothes behind businesses these days.
In January, the Kern County Homeless Collaborative conducted a survey of the county’s homeless population that found a 50 percent increase in homelessness over 2018.
A frequent rumor, heard often by those who work in shelters and housing services, claims Kern County’s homeless increase can be blamed on other counties busing their transient populations to Bakersfield.
“Every time we make a presentation on homelessness to the community it’s asked,” said Housing Authority of Kern Assistant Director Heather Kimmel.
But data collected by the homeless collaborative disputes this rumor.
Of the 1,330 people experiencing homelessness who were surveyed by the collaborative, none said another county paid for their bus ticket to come to Kern, and only 17 percent of respondents said they were homeless when they arrived in Kern.
“It’s not a large group at all when you look at the percentage counted,” Kimmel said.
Roughly half of those who were homeless when they got to Kern County said they came to the county because they thought they had family they could stay with, with the rest listing various other reasons.
Homeless experts say a portion of those who come to Kern County while homeless are part of a transient group of perennially homeless people who travel throughout the state and the country.
Of the roughly 83 percent of the county’s homeless population that originated inside Kern, many of them became homeless due to a lack of affordable housing, Kimmel said.
“There is a crisis directly caused by a lack of affordable housing,” she said. “You can’t solve homelessness without housing.”
And simply not enough affordable one-bedroom homes in Bakersfield exist to house everyone in need.
On top of that, mental health issues and addiction also play a role in homelessness.
Across the state, homelessness has been increasing, indicating that Kern County is not unique in grappling with this issue.
Word has spread in other communities that the growing problem has been caused by counties busing homeless people to other communities.
Some cities do have programs designed to bus certain people out of their communities.
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2018 that cities like San Diego had busing programs, which critics called "Greyhound therapy."
The newspaper reported that about 1,100 people had been bused out from 2012 to 2017.
Bakersfield has been a destination of some city programs to bus the homeless out of town, according to one housing official in Lancaster.
Lisa Dawson, director of the coordinated entry system at Valley Oasis, a shelter in Lancaster, said shelters in Lancaster had bused people to shelters in Bakersfield years ago when there was space in Bakersfield but none in Lancaster.
She couldn't recall exactly when the practice took place, but said it had stopped years ago and does not currently happen.
As far as local officials who work with the homeless can tell, almost all of the homelessness in Kern County appears to be home-grown.