Rhiannon Wilemon has been homeless on and off for the past 10 years, but says she began to scrape “bottom of the barrel” homelessness over the last month.
“Since I’ve been out here, I feel like it’s almost impossible to get my head above ground,” she said, adding that she felt especially unequipped to be homeless in Bakersfield.
Over the past year, Bakersfield residents seem to have grown tired of the constant presence of homelessness in plain sight. Recently, the rhetoric has taken on an agitated tone, with many claiming the vast majority of the city’s homeless population are drug addicted criminals, either beyond help or undeserving of sympathy.
But unlike others she knows, Wilemon says she does not panhandle or even ask for money.
“I literally have no hustle,” she said. She even avoids bottle collecting, which typically earns individuals a few dollars for turning in the recycled material.
Instead, she said she spends her days cleaning up after other homeless people in the city. She picks up discarded plastic along the bluffs at Panorama Park or puts back trash that has been thrown out of outside bins by homeless people searching for valuable material.
“I clean up all their trash,” she said. “I keep myself active because it’s embarrassing to even be a part of that.”
The 37-year-old Ridgeview High School graduate spent the last several years caring for her father, who had kidney failure. Over the last year and a half, she lived with her dad, but when he passed away suddenly in January of pneumonia, she found herself without a place to stay. She previously struggled with drug addiction, and did not work while she cared for her father.
These days, she spends a lot of time riding the bus, where she can get out of the weather and charger her phone. She, her boyfriend and her dog named Fatboy have relied on friends for sleeping arrangements. She said she only stays with each friend for a short period of time before moving on, careful not to overstay her welcome. On several occasions, she said, she and her boyfriend have been forced to sleep outside, where they have to compete for spots with other homeless individuals.
The job hunt, so far, has been unsuccessful. Potential employers see the gap in her resume and select candidates with more recent job experience, she said. With few prospects on the horizon, she holds out hope that her circumstances will change soon.
“I’m very capable,” she said. “I don’t want a handout. I just want a hand up.”
A difficult situation
Wilemon’s circumstances have become increasingly familiar to Bakersfield residents. In a point-in-time count completed in January, local volunteers found a 108 percent increase in unsheltered homeless individuals in metro Bakersfield over the previous year. The survey revealed 643 people living outside of the shelters in and around the city, with another 507 individuals considered to be “sheltered.”
The city’s homeless population has overwhelmed local service providers. The homeless frequently occupy every bed shelters have to offer. Businesses have complained of individuals sleeping on their property and some residents have said homeless-related crime has spread across the city.
Bakersfield residents often point to recent changes in the law that reduced prison populations. Voter-approved ballot measures like propositions 47 and 57 reduced charges for certain crimes like drug possession and minor theft.
Many say that has resulted in criminals masquerading as homeless individuals, and claims frequently arise that the streets are filled with people who want to be there.
“Homeless has become a generic word. It’s anybody who’s out walking around the street, they’re homeless. Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily true,” City Councilman Ken Weir said at a meeting last week.
He later added, “Almost all the complaints I hear about ‘the homeless’ has to deal with people breaking into their yards, has to deal with theft, it has to do with drugs. It has to do with people that have no respect for the law.”
He went on to say that the emergency homeless shelter being considered by the council should only serve those who “obey the law.”
He is just the latest local official to link homelessness to criminality and drug abuse. Other local residents have noticed an increasing agitation with homelessness as break-ins and instances of vandalism pile up.
“I think everybody sees both sides,” said local businessman Kyle Carter. “They get frustrated because they’re out there and they’re doing those things, but they also get frustrated because you think ‘what do I do?’ Giving them a meal is not going to help them, well, just for a second.”
Carter, who owns the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, has been on the receiving end of some of the issues associated with homelessness. His buildings have been damaged, the wires were stripped from the lights in one of his parking lots, and one night last winter, a homeless man went into his backyard and started banging on his windows demanding to be let in.
Carter said he talked with the man for more than two hours before the police showed up.
“He said, 'you can’t get rid of me, I live here now,'” Carter said. “He just wanted in my house. I felt bad but I wasn’t going to let him in.”
While recent efforts by the city have reduced the impacts of homelessness on downtown businesses, efforts by the city to construct a new low-barrier shelter have stalled.
Until the number of homeless people on the streets of Bakersfield decreases, many residents will likely continue to be frustrated.
“The compassion part, it’s a two-way street,” Carter said. “You can get mad at them or you can feel compassion for them and I think most people feel both.”
The growing frustration troubles Jim Wheeler, executive director of homeless outreach organization Flood Ministries.
“I get that people are frustrated,” he said. “But every person is made in the image of God, and no one person was ever born into this world and said ‘I want to be homeless someday.'”
He added that the words spoken by elected officials and those in the media could be leading Bakersfield down an unfortunate path.
“When you start othering people, and you start demeaning them as a person. It’s really easy for that to lead to some type of violence, or other detrimental actions that are not helpful,” he said.
J.R. Flores, a program director at KERN Radio, said he hoped and prayed the homeless situation in Bakersfield did not worsen. Earlier this year, Flores gave an impassioned message to the City Council, in which he detailed criminal activity and drug abuse in the homeless community.
“It’s like a perfect storm going on right now with homelessness and what they’re doing at the state level,” he said, referring to the state law changes that reduced penalties for low-level offenders. “They’re categorized as homeless when they probably used to be in (Sheriff) Donny’s (Youngblood) jail and they know that they’re not going to be prosecuted.”
He said he had called the police several times regarding homeless individuals near his home in Oleander. In the last two weeks, a homeless woman walked up to the courtyard of his house while his fiancee was home alone and tried to place what appeared to be a potted plant in the area, saying “you don’t understand, it brings it all together.”
“It was a little disturbing at that point,” he said.
Yet, despite the connections between criminality and homelessness, he thinks Bakersfield residents cannot turn their backs on their homeless neighbors. He recently was part of Kern Leaders Academy and visited a homeless encampment.
The experience moved him, he said.
He added that he keeps searching for solutions.
“Everybody can be saved,” he said. “Some people take a lot more work than others and it’s not so much that always the people that they’re working with. It’s the people that are resistant to the help. How do we figure that out?”
While Wilemon has noticed criminals and drug users among the homeless population, she says the citizens of Bakersfield have also made life more difficult for her.
She said she has been yelled at so often by people passing by in cars she always wears her headphones. In one instance, a small group tossed a can at her from a car while she was picking up trash.
She says she was just picking up the trash to make the area cleaner, adding that she cleans up alleys during her day to keep herself busy.
“They were making fun of me for being homeless,” she said.
While she says about half of Bakersfield’s homeless population are drug addicts who “want” to be on the streets, local attitudes have made it difficult for her to get back on her feet.
At one point this year, she recalled she managed to scrounge up $3 she planned to spend at McDonald's for food. She says the general public tends to “smirk and go around” her. But, on that day, a homeless man handed her enough money for a drink and some kibble for her dog.
“The only kind, generous, people out here are the homeless people,” she said. “They are the only ones who have showed me any kindness.”
She said she will continue her job search, which is made more difficult due to the “feeding frenzy” of applicants also in the hunt.
On the days that she dresses up for her potential job search, she notices she gets taken advantage of by other homeless individuals, but when she dresses like someone without a bed to sleep in, the rest of Bakersfield looks at her funny.
“If you don’t look like you belong out here, you’re going to be messed with and if you look like you belong out here then you’re going to be messed with,” she said.
It is a difficult struggle that seems impossible to break out of.
“It sucks because it’s hard to look appropriately when you don’t have a home,” she said. “And it’s weird to not break laws and be homeless as well. Because where am I going to sleep? Where am I going to lay my head at night? It’s just too much.”