At this point, nearly all Bakersfield residents are familiar with the sight of stuffed shopping carts littered throughout public parks and dirty tarps strewn just out of sight.
Homelessness in Kern County has apparently exploded over the past year, along with frustration that city residents say they feel over aggressive panhandlers and illicit activities happening in broad daylight.
But when those residents call the police, asking them to do something about it, oftentimes the cops are powerless to act.
“Many citizens are under the impression that it’s like it was 15 to 20 years ago, and they encourage us to behave in that way,” City Manager Alan Tandy said. “But we know that we can’t so we don’t.”
A series of law changes have chipped away at law enforcement’s ability to respond to citizen complaints about homelessness in public places, he added, completely changing how the issue is dealt with.
Capping off the long list of changes is a controversial decision made by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals last year that many municipalities say severely limit their ability to deal with homeless issues.
The ruling – which has come to be known as the “Boise Decision” after the city in which it originated – states that municipalities do not have the authority to prevent a homeless person from camping in a public space unless there are shelter beds available.
The new precedent arose after six homeless individuals sued the city of Boise, saying the city’s ordinances restricting public camping and sleeping constituted cruel and unusual punishment, according to the city.
The federal court agreed.
Advocates of the ruling say that forcing a homeless individual out of their chosen spot when there are no shelter beds available effectively pushes the problem to another jurisdiction rather than dealing with it.
But the law has strained cities and counties across the western United States.
Because shelters in Bakersfield are almost always at capacity, the law has prevented law enforcement officers from immediately removing homeless camps throughout the county.
Sheriff Donny Youngblood has expressed frustration with the inability of deputies to move homeless people out of public spaces, and Tandy called the law constraining.
Despite the constraints, Bakersfield has continued to deploy rapid response teams to clean up homeless encampments. The city says that because the teams post notices days in advance at the site of their encampments, and give the inhabitants time to find other places to live, they are in the clear legally.
Other cities have raised alarm over the ruling, calling the law too vague.
Since the court’s decision in 2018, cities under the jurisdiction of the 9th Circuit Court have begun adding themselves to an appeal that the city of Boise recently asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear.
The city of Los Angeles recently joined the appeal, and the Kern County Board of Supervisors has considered adding the county’s name to the list.
But while the Boise Decision has created frustration among law enforcement and city residents, some say it has led to a few good outcomes.
“It’s a catch-22 in the sense that it’s really inhibited law enforcement and code enforcement from enforcing local statutes, but on the other hand, it’s motivated local jurisdictions to build more shelter beds,” said Flood Ministries Executive Director Jim Wheeler.
He said a connection existed between the Boise Decision and the city and county pursuing the construction of new emergency shelters for homeless individuals.
The new beds, if they don't relieve all of the problem, will at least provide an opportunity for homeless individuals to get help.
“If you want people off the streets then you need a shelter,” he said. “We’re doing a great job, but we can only do so much because when people do want to go into the shelter, there’s no shelter beds available.”