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County ready to put words into 'action,' address homelessness after Homekey award

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Individuals experiencing homelessness lined up outside of St. Vincent de Paul Bakersfield on April 15 to enjoy a warm barbecue lunch from Sonder restaurant, as part of Operation BBQ Relief.

After being awarded nearly $15 million in a program designed to rehabilitate housing for the homeless, Kern County is ready to put “action” behind its efforts to address homelessness, according to Stephen Pelz, executive director of the local housing authority.

The $14,970,935 from the California Department of Housing and Community Development department is part of the program titled “Homekey,” which aims to give permanent housing to people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness.

“It is encouraging for our regional efforts to address homelessness that Kern County received nearly 20 percent of the first round funding awarded statewide for Homekey,” Pelz said.

Nearly $76.5 million was awarded for 10 projects in seven communities last week. Additional awards are expected weekly until all $600 million has been awarded, a news release from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said.

Locally, four sites will be used to provide housing for 150 community members, Pelz said. These four sites will be at two existing motels, one vacant multifamily property and a condo.

“Rehabilitation will vary depending on the property and needs,” Pelz said.

The award comes after two previous attempts to implement a related program, Project Roomkey, were stifled by opposing community members and local government.

A plan to utilize the Sleep Inn & Suites Bakersfield North, located at 6257 Knudsen Drive in north Bakersfield, to temporarily house homeless individuals most vulnerable to COVID-19 was postponed in July following negative feedback from the community, according to the Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative.

Another plan to temporarily house medically vulnerable homeless individuals at the Rosedale Inn over the next five months was rejected by the Bakersfield City Council on Sept. 10.

Anna Laven, executive director of the Kern homeless collaborative, previously described Project Roomkey’s implementation locally as being about “life or death.” She said that prospects for Project Roomkey would likely be killed prior to its rejection.

“Homelessness ends when every person in Kern County has a permanent place to call home,” Laven said. “(Homekey's) announcement is a major win for our community and will directly impact our efforts to reduce homelessness by increasing our inventory of permanent supportive housing.”

Pelz explained that while Project Roomkey and Homekey bear similar names, they are “completely different programs.”

“Homekey is about utilizing motels and multifamily properties to provide permanent homes for persons who are at-risk of or who are experiencing homelessness,” Pelz said. “Homekey also involves improving the properties to ensure they are viable long term and are an asset to the community.”

He said that Homekey follows a model that has already been successfully implemented locally.

He said permanent supportive housing has a more than 90 percent success rate because of the heightened level of “wraparound supportive services” provided to residents.

“We look forward to working with the county of Kern, city of Bakersfield and the community as we expand permanent supportive housing and help reduce homelessness,” Pelz said.

Pelz explained that the county became aware of the program when applications were made available on July 16. He said that the funding awarded will be the only funding they receive as the application process has closed.

He said the project’s intent is to have all properties acquired, rehabilitated and ready for occupancy by Dec. 30.