The 50 percent increase in homelessness shown in the most recent point-in-time count came as no surprise to those on the front lines of the county’s battle against extreme poverty.
Homeless shelters are frequently filled to capacity, and many Bakersfield residents complain that more people experiencing homelessness are living on the streets than ever before.
“It’s very clear that it’s a growing problem,” said City Manager Alan Tandy. “We’re simply being overwhelmed by daily complaints brought from all sectors, all geographic areas of the community, all parts of the city.”
The news that the amount of homeless people found in Bakersfield in a four-hour period in Kern County in late January had increased from 885 people in 2018 to 1,330 in 2019, reflects what many homeless service providers have experienced recently.
But a variety of new programs that should help mitigate the issue are being implemented, and funding from the city’s 1 percent sales tax increase could lead to more housing for the county’s homeless population.
Even if the count continues to go up in the next few years.
Louis Gill, CEO of the Bakersfield Homeless Center, said the lack of affordable housing was contributing to the rise in homelessness.
Across California, cities have reported increasing homeless populations, which many experts have linked to a decline in the amount of cheap housing available to California residents.
And Bakersfield is not immune.
“It’s just a supply and demand issue,” Gill said.
Another factor in this year’s high results was the Kern County Homeless Collaborative’s concerted effort to recruit more volunteers to participate in the count.
With far more volunteers in the field, more homeless people could be found.
However, Gill said the high count could not solely be attributed to the increase in volunteers. Statistics from other areas show an increase as well.
The Bakersfield Homeless Center has experienced a 13 percent increase in the amount of people staying within its walls over the last two years. The shelter is also distributing thousands more meals per month than it had been, previously.
“It’s not like we’ve made a bigger shelter in that time, we’ve just stuffed more people in,” Gill said.
The good news for Kern County residents is that help is on the way.
Bakersfield officials recently announced that the city plans to spend $9 million of sales tax revenue on new housing for the homeless.
Four million dollars of the money will be used for “low barrier” housing that will allow anybody to have shelter during a transition from temporary housing to permanent housing. Five million dollars of the funds are planned for construction of a new transitional housing center.
Recently, the city also announced that it would expand The Mission at Kern County and the Bakersfield Homeless Center by 40 beds each.
“It’s a major expansion of efforts,” Tandy said.
The Homeless Collaborative has also made it easier for those experiencing homelessness to find new housing. The collaborative recently received funding for a “coordinated entry system” that will streamline the process of connecting homeless people to the proper services.
“There’s one big front door for people to seek housing assistance, instead of all these side doors,” said Jessica Janssen, homeless projects manager for United Way of Kern County, which oversees the Collaborative. “It’s easier for people to access, everybody is being served in a standardized and streamlined way.”
The collaborative is in the first year of a 10-year plan to end homelessness. Strategies outlined in the plan have already led to service changes.
Janssen said the plan puts the county on the path to closing the gaps in the county’s social safety net, and it should lead to a better system in the future.