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.”

Increased anger

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?”

Hostile actions

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.”

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.

(36) comments

R1313

I live in a downtown area, we have homeless and crime.

I know a lot of the homeless by sight, if not by name.

From my observation, there seems to small group of individuals, not homeless, who "run" the area. They take advantage of the homeless and commit most of the crime.

whittierblvd

not sure about bake o but the homeless in fresno leave trash all over the place...i have seen one woman and of course a dog for sympathy purposes on the same corner on blackstone for 3yrs running, never lost any weight, earting good i suppose but the trash she doesn't have the time to pick up is unreal!! there is plenty of help out there if you want it, but the caveat is , you might have to show some responsibility and get off of your street corner ...don't think to many of them want or need a job ! much more fun to panhandle all day!

PowerToThePeople

Send out teams to "survey" the homeless. Ask them what they need to get back up on their feet and find out what skills & knowledge they possess.

Show them, step by step how to get what they need. Literally walk them through the process, one by one, step by step. Hold their hand. Do it for them if necessary. Example: "I need food & water. I need shelter for myself and my 3 monkeys and we don't want to be split up. I need help getting a job. I have no skills. I need training. I have an 8th grade education.", et cetera.

Give them assessment tests to verify skills. Attempt to provide remedial tutoring - some people can't even read in this town. Believe it, I am not kidding. I have met Johnny and he can not read. Some of these people are elderly. Some state they are vets.

Determine mental health. Bring the resources to them or help them get to the resources. Resources are scattered around the city and can take hours to walk there or scrounge up enough to take a bus. It's not reasonable to ask them to 1) know about the resources available and 2) to be able to physically get there. Some of these services require repeat visits and you have to get to multiple different places, etc.

It's time consuming. It's physically exhausting. Being in that position is emotionally overwhelming and when you tell people they need to make an effort it shows how little you understand the emotional impact and enormous toll it takes on people's physical and mental health.

Becoming homeless can MAKE a perfectly normal person crazy from the stress and sheer desperation and depression it engenders. Not everyone has a support system. Those that are on drugs have given up hope of ever getting ahead and the drugs are a temporary escape from sheer misery. Do you really think they they truly want that life? Highly doubtful. They just don't see a better way from their position at the bottom of the ladder. It's easy to make grand sweeping declarations with the view from ivory towers - not so much from the sewers.

The movie "Trading Places" from 1983 gives a comedic glimpse into how even a wealthy, lawful man can turn into a criminal just to survive. Eddie Murphy & Dan Akroyd star so you know it's fun.

yorkies2014

Gene Pool Chlorinator....[Cloraxing the human race white.....tha's just wrong.].....only in Bako Patch

Gene Pool Chlorinator

Funny how you chose to not address the point of my post to you, but that's fine. Substitute content with ad hominem (look it up) attacks on my chatroom handle if it makes you feel better.

At least I chose not to name myself after a breed of canine...

Gene Pool Chlorinator

No, MORON, and if you had any intellect at all (which you don't), you'd clearly see the intent of my handle.

You are in fact, even more idiotic than I thought and that's saying something.

My God, is everything about race with you and your ilk?

#KeepOnBeingStupid

mrdwm1

Whatever the longer-term answers are, there is a genuine and immediate need to shelter and assist, somehow, those who are willing and able to be productive members of society.

yorkies2014

ohhhh.. in God we Trust...just unbelievable....this place is still the armpit of the state...it cant be rocket science ... isn't that Republican Mayor suppose to be a do-gooder .... she should have something positive to suggest ...and the rest of them cant just be leaving it all at church after Sunday morn.. isn't that their brand...what they run on.... just leadership crickets

Gene Pool Chlorinator

Yorkies blaming republicans again, and yet you write on another post about the "broken record" practice of blaming democrats for certain ills.

Your hypocrisy is truly rich...

Veritas

Your wasting your breath GPC. She either has a touch of dementia or is a former resident who is now an out of town Troll. Look at it this way, just seeing her name and subsequent comments should make you laugh, if you just consider the source.

FAIRGROUND61

[huh] WHY? the Blame game... again,.. lets be proactive. Can you do a better job than those in Office. Lets get off your Duff n Run for office. Lets see how many will agree with your Views. ? PLEASE???

Sheebe

Some in both parties are not doing their job. Your post I agree with. Is not all one sided. Democrats have desecrated out state for years. The mayor is questionable. Homeless shouldn't be ignored. They pick the wrong area to build a shelter. Than they say they won't build it there. Turn around and say they are. Grrrrrrrrrr Basically is mostly Democrat control. That mayor seems off.

FAIRGROUND61

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

FAIRGROUND61

[sad] Dont know the Mayor or Council, seems like there is alot of Disgruntled people in the Area. HAve you ever considered Living somewhere else? or do you vote to remove these people? Have you considered running against them in an election to do a better job? There seems to be a need for Cheese over this Topic as I see alot of Wine ( ing) and not many being Proactive. Petitions do Work in a community. I live in an un incorporated area of Bakersfield, so I have to communicate with the County of my Concerns,.. There seems to be little or no movement in the Lower Tax areas of the City n County to rid this problem of homelessness.. [yawn][yawn][yawn]

The Jackal

Absolutely. Kyle Carter wants to get his guns and shoot homeless people like he said at the board meeting. He referred to them as zombies. The sheriff has no value for human life. Especially for drug addicts and suspects.

Instead of compassion you have heartless people saying they shouldn't have gotten hooked on drugs or they think McDonald's pays a with living wage. Shameful.

All Star

Did you listen to TRBS on Thursday? He did a segment about you bring cray cray. It was hilarious.

Veritas

Wait! Are you suggesting that The Jackal is who I think you are? If so, I did not know that was him until now. Would explain a lot though...

Sheebe

Your post doesn't make sense at all. Do you proof read? If not, you should. Sounds deranged.

FAIRGROUND61

[huh][huh][huh] PLease work with your neighbors,.. Lets see what YOU Can Do,.. Im on Board with you...

Barking Spider

And Ms. Wilemon's boyfriend's excuse for not working would be what? Let me guess struggling with substance abuse, lapse in a resume, L&I scam, disability due to food allergies or anxiety.

EMarie61

Rhiannon's story could have been my own. I lost my home a year after I lost my dad in 2009. I was too scared and too clueless to ask for help; my own family living in town pretty much turned their back on me. I made the mistake of trusting some strangers to help me, and one of them in particular was a cruel and dishonest person who exploited and abused, even robbed homeless people. I can at least be thankful that I had SOME kind of roof over my head and didn't end up out on the streets, where I'm positive I wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes. But until you people have gone down that road, you can't really understand and you sure can't judge.

I understand where everyone is coming from on BOTH sides of the fence. Yes, you have the homeless who are mentally ill (and btw, often fall through the cracks of the system); those who are substance abusers; those who are just plain hostile and go around making trouble. And then, you have people who simply got a bad break in life and desperately want to get out of that situation. And the last thing they need or deserve is abuse from the public. It's easy to look down on others until you have walked in their shoes.

Sheebe

Perfectly stated.

FAIRGROUND61

THE MISSION of KERN County is a Wonderful Spot to seek Help to get on your Feet,.. I have volunteered there often,. I have seen Proof Positive their Not for Profit PRogram Works.

scottybob

Lost compassion, nope. It's just like Thatcher said many years ago: Eventually, you run out of other peoples' money. And patience.

Nathane

The solution begins with understanding basic characteristics of the homeless.

1. Each is a human being

2. Many have companions, a pet or friend, for security, comfort and warm.

3. They come from diverse religious beliefs.

Bakersfield's approach helping is:

1. Give more money to shelters for more beds.

Many shelters,religous based, often require no pets and separation from partners who may or not be of the same sex. Thus , for reasons stated, people choose to be as they are.

Solution? Start by providing a place they can sleep legally. A campground operation, with restrooms and hot showers, communal eating arrangements and access to individuals who can begin a plan to improve their lives. Allow pets and companions to stay together without biases. Then solutions can begin to be identified.

The Jackal

What this guy said.

Sailor007

I'm sure there is plenty of compassion for the homeless , at least for those who choose not to literally poop on those that would help them.

Tam Daras

I gave up last week while raking leaves in the alley. I found a bent white coat hanger. I looked closer. It had been used to cover fresh human feces with dirt I unearthed while tidying up the leaves.

FAIRGROUND61

Ms Wilemmon( Pictured) needs to go to the MISSION at KERN County and get into a Womens Dorm where she will be provided 3 meals a day, a Place to Live and a Wardrobe n offered Educational Classes and mentoring where she can get back on her feet.. BAKERSFIELD is offering more to Homeless people than other Metro Cities I have been in. A PERSON has to Make an EFFORT and be able to follow house rules. There are services available in Bakersfield. Make an effort. So many people dont do this...

The Jackal

Shelters are full. That's why they're building new ones. Or they should be.

Wraybon

I'm without a home but I don't break the law or do drugs I work and just can't find a place to rent that I can afford.

Inconvenient Truth

Have you looked for a roommate?

If you have a roommate, you effectively double your housing budget.

Inconvenient Truth

Have I lost my compassion for the few ‘Homeless’ individuals who have suffered an economic misfortune and are truly trying to get back on their feet?

No.

Have I lost my compassion for drug addicts who refuse treatment, won’t play nice with those trying to help them, and commit crime to support their habit?

Yes.

The only compassionate way to deal with chemically-dependent vagrants is to remove them bodily from the pavement and give them forced drug treatment.

The first step in AA and NA is recognizing you are powerless to help yourself.

We used to have Prop-36 treatment, but thanks to Prop-47 these people went from the controlled environment of jail to the streets where they can only get worse.

Free housing is NOT the answer; forced treatment IS.

We need to change the discussion; what the “main stream” media calls “Homelessness” has nothing to do with housing and everything to do with chemical dependency and mental illness.

GetReal2

Here’s my modest proposal: Offer the homeless a one way bus ticket to either a) San Francisco, or 2) the County Jail. Socialist homeless will pick SF, with addicts and the mentally freezing, thus choosing (nostalgically) appearing to stay local.

Moardeeb

Socialist homeless. Listen to yourself.

Moardeeb

This breaks my heart. No we do not all feel that way. But I too have had violent encounters with homeless, and just plain scary ones. I am more aware of my surroundings.

I think so many on the street are mentally I'll. It's hard to tell those down on their luck from the scary lot.

Suggestions?Anyone?

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