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Compared to other places, Bakersfield's response to homelessness is strong, city analysis finds

A City Hall analysis of Bakersfield’s homeless ordinances found the city is in a relatively strong position to address the local and state issue.

Requested by Councilman Andrae Gonzales after the Los Angeles City Council voted to enact a stricter anti-camping ordinance in July, the report found Bakersfield could react more quickly and thoroughly to homelessness than other municipalities.

“I thought it was important for the City Council to take a clear-eyed view of what LA’s ordinance really looked like, and what it looked like in comparison to what we were already doing,” Gonzales said in a phone interview. “So reading the report, I’m actually very proud of the city of Bakersfield, and the work that we’ve done over the last two-and-a-half to three years to address the homelessness crisis that, frankly, the whole state is experiencing.”

Bakersfield has significantly increased spending on homelessness since the passage of the Public Safety and Vital Services Measure, also known as Measure N. An annual count of individuals experiencing homelessness found 2,150 people in Kern County, with many located in Bakersfield. The city now spends $11 million per year to address the issue, and has helped develop 400 new shelter beds over the last three years.

The report, which was written by a collaboration between the City Manager’s and City Attorney’s offices, said the recent investments had allowed the city to stay ahead of “more serious challenges” in part brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Other communities, the report claims, are now just beginning to adopt the policies Bakersfield approved years ago.

The expanded bed count has also allowed the city to more stringently enforce its own rules against habitation on public lands. A 2018 Circuit Court decision bars municipalities from preventing camping in public spaces unless shelter beds are available. The ruling has limited homeless enforcement in some cities, but with two new homeless shelters, the city has expanded the use of rapid response teams to dismantle encampments.

The City Council has also expanded its use of organizations such as Flood Ministries, which provides street outreach to those who do not have a home. With new funding, not only from the city, but the county and state, Flood has expanded from 15 employees to more than 50. The organization has taken more than 500 people to local shelters over the last year.

“The major difference the city and the county have been so much more responsive is because they acknowledged that it was a crisis, and they’ve given out substantial resources to help deal with the issue,” said Flood Executive Director Jim Wheeler. “It takes time. It’s like turning the Titanic. It takes time to turn that boat around, but there have been major changes in how we’re addressing the issue.”

The solution is far from complete, city officials and homeless resource providers agree. As residents of Bakersfield can testify, homelessness is readily evident in every part of the city. And advocates say truly reducing the number of people on the street will take more than shelter beds and encampment sweeps.

“The only way to solve the problem of homelessness is to actually provide housing to individuals,” said Cameron Garcia, a volunteer with Food Not Bombs, a grassroots organization that provides vegetarian meals to the homeless.

The conduct of code enforcement officers conducting sweeps of encampments in local parks has rubbed Garcia and others the wrong way, especially when those officers throw belongings into dumpsters. The city is supposed to provide 72 hours' notice and a hearing where individuals can reclaim their stuff, but Garcia said the system rarely works as intended.

In addition, he said many of the people Food Not Bombs helps distrust the city, and the mental health and addiction issues some of the homeless experience make it difficult for them to be admitted into local homeless shelters.

“Yeah, there are a bunch of beds, but there is an asterisk for every single bed,” he said. “And a lot of these asterisks are way too much for people to be comfortable with.”

Moving forward, Gonzales hopes the city will continue to explore new methods for addressing homelessness.

“Even though we’re doing a lot of great things, and we have strategies that others are looking toward, and we still have a model, we still have a crisis and we still have problems,” he said. “We can have pretty effective tools, but we can also still have a lot of work to do. And we still have a lot of work to do right now.”

The report is scheduled to be discussed during Wednesday's City Council meeting. The meeting starts at 5:15 p.m., and is located at City Council Chambers, 1501 Truxtun Ave.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.