Kern Project Roomkey — the Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative plan to lease hotel space to temporarily house homeless individuals most vulnerable to COVID-19 mortality — has been postponed following negative feedback from the community, according to the collaborative’s governing board chair Deborah Johnson.
Johnson said the news of the project in the area’s proposed location — the Sleep Inn & Suites Bakersfield North, located at 6257 Knudsen Drive in north Bakersfield — was “not received well.” She explained that the collaborative is hesitant to divulge further details of the project as protecting the vulnerable homeless is their first priority.
“Homelessness is a very sensitive topic that can garner community support or resistance,” Johnson said.
Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard — whose district borders the proposed location — explained there was negative feedback from both residents and business owners in the proposed area.
He said when the collaborative explained they already had the money and resources to go ahead with the project, it "built up even more resentment" from people in the area.
"It made the neighborhood feel like it was being forced upon them," Maggard said. "It’s not the appropriate place and time in that area."
Maggard explained he's not opposed to the concept of the project, but suggested other areas the collaborative should look.
"I’m all in favor of transitional housing," Maggard said. "The way it was handled did not lead it to be successful there."
Louis Gill, executive director of the Bakersfield Homeless Center, said there's no more capacity to successfully isolate homeless individuals locally.
“The entire point of (Kern Project Roomkey) was there isn’t enough capacity for people to isolate,” Gill said. “We need the capacity. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been trying to put this together.”
He said during the process of getting the project approved and securing funds, they failed to get necessary support from the county government.
“We would need an allocation of funding from the county to pay for the rooms,” Gill said. “There are dollars set aside to address (COVID-19) needs in the county budget.”
Carlos Baldovinos, executive director of The Mission at Kern County, said he was hoping the project would get approved. The Mission currently has 16 beds set aside in order for vulnerable individuals — 65 years and older — to isolate.
However, he believes there needs to be more done assisting the homeless population during the COVID-19 period.
“It would have been good to have (the hotel rooms),” Baldovinos said. “I don’t know all of the politics behind the decision but I’m seeing (Project Roomkey) all over in California in places like San Diego and I don’t know why everyone isn’t doing it.
“I have the same question as to why we’re not doing it in Kern County.”
Deborah Leary, chairwoman of the board at St. Vincent de Paul Bakersfield, was never involved in the project but was aware of it throughout its planning stages. She said even her clients were aware of the project and interested.
“Even our homeless were asking us, ‘Have you heard anything about that (hotel) program?'” Leary said. “The homeless periodically ask about things happening locally. They do know what’s going on.”
Leary said she regularly keeps up with her clients if they or anyone they know has been sick or exhibit COVID-19 symptoms. Thankfully, she said, none of the homeless on Baker Street have appeared ill.
Gill said not having additional options for isolation if needed are a “public health and public safety issue.” However, he was optimistic for the collaborative’s prospects moving forward.
“Those of us in crisis service are really good at a pivot because people need to be helped and the community needs to be safe,” Gill said. “We will find a solution.”
Johnson said there's been frustration among the local homeless veteran population who have seeked housing after being possibly exposed to COVID-19. She said the collaborative is tracking anyone that may have had an exposure to COVID-19 or has tested positive.
“I think we all anticipated that we would see cases at the beginning and we didn’t, but now it’s starting a trickle effect,” Johnson said. “We have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow.”