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Homeless population in Kern jumps 19 percent, new data says

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Individuals experiencing homelessness lined up outside of St. Vincent de Paul Bakersfield on April 15 to enjoy a warm barbecue lunch from Sonder restaurant, as part of Operation BBQ Relief.

The number of homeless people in Kern County increased by 19 percent, or 250 people, in the past year, according to a report released Wednesday from this year's homeless count.

The count, which took place in January, identified 1,580 homeless people in Kern compared to 1,330 in 2019.

The vast majority of those counted, 63.5 percent — or 1,004 people — were unsheltered, meaning they sleep in parks, empty buildings and cars, primarily in metro Bakersfield area. Seven of them were children.

"We don't want to sugarcoat things. We want to acknolwedge this is an area of concern, and most of the community has identified this as something they want us to focus on," said Anna Laven, executive director of the Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative. "But there have been incredible changes."
Laven pointed to the impending opening of two homeless shelters by the county and city of Bakersfield, and expansions at other facilities which will make 562 more beds available at shelters by the end of 2020. There is also a strong commitment among local leaders at every level to address the problem, and more coordination than ever among different groups that help the homeless, Laven said.

The federal government requires communities receiving certain federal funds to do a homeless count annually. In 2019, the count found a 50 percent increase in Kern County's homeless population over 2018, when 885 homeless people were counted.

While that works out to a 95 percent increase from 2018 to 2020, part of the increase is likely due to an undercount of the homeless previously, Laven said. A major increase in volunteers in 2019 and 2020 has provided a more accurate picture of the homeless situation, she said. 

However, lack of affordable housing is believed to be the main culprit in driving up shelter numbers and pushing people onto the streets.

"The ultimate issue is the way you solve homelessness is housing, and what we need is more housing that's affordable," Laven said.

One bright spot in the data is a decrease in homeless veterans; this year, there were 107 compared to 123 last year, the report said.

Among the other findings of this year's count:

  • Families with children made up 14 percent of the homeless population, with children accounting for almost 9 percent, or 142, of those counted
  • Among families with children, 15 percent did not have shelter
  • 88.5 percent, or 1,398, of the homeless counted were in metro Bakersfield, 148 (9.4 percent) were in west Kern and 34 (2.1 percent) were in east Kern
  • 60 percent of the 1,398 homeless in metro Bakersfield were unsheltered, an increase of 31 percent over 2019's numbers
  • Of the unsheltered homeless in metro Bakersfield, 201 (24 percent) were found in east Bakersfield, 185 (22 percent) were in southwest Bakersfield, 127 (15 percent) were in central Bakersfield, 67 (8 percent) were along the Kern River, 65 (8 percent) were in Rosedale, and 47 (6 percent) were in Oildale
  • 562 of those counted reported having a substance abuse problem, 316 reported a serious mental illness, 84 were domestic violence survivors

City Councilman Andrae Gonzales, who represents parts of downtown and East Bakersfield — shown in the report to be the most impacted areas by homelessness — said the report underscored the continued need for more resources to address the problem, and the importance of working together and adding more shelter capacity. 

"That site can't come soon enough," he said of the city's planned shelter at the Calcot Limited building on East Brundage Lane, slated to open this fall. "Unfortunately this crisis isn't going away and the data we received today showed that it's only growing."

Once the immediate need of shelter is provided for, Gonzales said, "harder conversations" are necessary, particularly to address the homeless with substance abuse and mental health problems.

"Some of that means additional resources, but we also have to look at the laws on the books and how do we strengthen the laws to help people to get treatment," Gonzales said. "We know it is very unsafe and unhealthy for individuals to be on the street, unsheltered, and to live in that state. They're a harm to themselves and other people. We need to get real about that in this state."

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Coronavirus Cases widget

  • Positive Cases Among Kern Residents: 158,270

  • Deaths: 1,828

  • Recovered and Presumed Recovered Residents: 150,950 

  • Percentage of all cases that are unvaccinated: 92.04

  • Percentage of all hospitalizations that are unvaccinated: 92.62 Updated: 12/3/2021.

  • Source: Kern County Public Health Services Department