The Housing Authority of the County of Kern is considering a plan to house homeless women at one of the two farm labor camps it manages as a way to address the homeless crisis.
The authority's executive director Stephen Pelz said Wednesday the migrant farm labor centers — the Sunset Labor Camp south of Lamont and the North Shafter Farm Labor Camp south of Wasco — sit vacant from November through March and are ideal to provide temporary housing as they feature furnished apartments. Pelz hopes to use one of the centers to house 50 homeless women who would live there on an invite-only basis this winter.
The camps have been in operation for over 80 years to provide temporary housing for 176 households each year coming from other counties and states to work in Kern County.
The authority is currently working with the state to get approval but Pelz said the state allows this use at other migrant farm labor centers.
The idea, however, is already being met with opposition. The Wasco City Council voted Tuesday night to oppose plans to the use the North Shafter camp and the Shafter City Council is considering a similar move. On Wednesday, Supervisor David Couch's office was fielding numerous calls from the Wasco and Shafter communities upset about the plan.
"In my view, it’s hard to be against something that we don’t know the details of," Couch said Wednesday. The housing authority operates independently of the county but the camps are located on unincorporated county land in Couch's district.
But Wasco City Manager Daniel Ortiz-Hernandez said that's exactly what bothered the city council. The vote "was primarily based on the fact that we had zero information until late last week," he said, adding that he heard a decision to use the facility could be made as soon as this week.
"Even though it’s outside the city limits, because of its location both communities will be impacted by services that are needed or residents of the camp who would be shopping or utilizing services in our community because of the remoteness of that camp," he said.
Wasco contracts with the county sheriff's office for public safety services, and city leaders wondered if a homeless center would take a deputy away from patrolling Wasco to answer calls at the camp.
"Being out here in the rural area, we don’t have the services that can provide for the needs of these individuals," Ortiz-Hernandez said.
Officials from Bakersfield and the county have pledged to immediately address the homeless problem by, among other things, expanding shelter space.
The housing authority's facilities would have onsite staffing, services, case management and food, as well as transportation and assistance to help the women find permanent housing in the community they came from, Pelz said.
At the end of March, any women not moved into permanent housing will be relocated to the Bakersfield Homeless Center, he said.
"Is it too much to ask that we use one of these facilities while sitting vacant to house up to 50 women who are Kern County residents?" Pelz said. "After all, these women are our mothers, sisters, and daughters and this is the least we can do to help them in their time of need."