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Kern County seeks to tackle homeless encampments with comprehensive package

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In this file photo, Kern County firemen extinguish a fire at a homeless encampment under a bridge near Olive Drive.

Kern County unveiled a comprehensive plan to tackle homelessness on Thursday, one that seeks to address the holes in the social safety net that have proven hardest to fix.

At a meeting on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will consider a new anti-encampment ordinance the county plans to merge with millions of dollars worth of additional homeless services to reduce the number of people living on the street.

“I think this is the biggest step forward in our managing of homelessness that we’ve made so far,” said Supervisor Mike Maggard, who directed the County Administrative Office to look into an encampment ordinance in July. “This effort focuses its attention on those people who are the most disruptive not only to the community, but who are the most in need of help from the community.”

The new ordinance would prohibit camping and living in public areas such as sidewalks, doorways, riverbeds, parks and underpasses in addition to a variety of other areas, such as anywhere within 500 feet of a school or within 10 feet of a public sidewalk adjacent to a residential property.

For the first time, the county will also fund two rapid response teams to respond to homeless issues and enforce the new ordinance on encampments. The ordinance would only be in effect if shelter space is available, and the county plans to increase the number of open beds by establishing two new alternatives to encampments.

A “safe parking and camping” site located at the M Street Navigation Center would provide a legal site for individuals living on the street who are not ready to live in a shelter. Kern officials also hope to construct 30 to 50 tiny homes for those who need shelter but resist congregate settings.

“We’ve come together to really step up our game in our fight against homelessness,” said Chief Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop. “The work continues to be an evolution, building on what we’ve found that works, and adding elements that we believe will enhance our overall effectiveness in getting people off the streets and into help and housing.”

A significant focus of the new proposal is mental health issues and substance abuse among the county’s homeless population. The county plans to use $8.3 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act over four years to establish multiple teams set on reaching those who are often most resistant to outreach.

For the first time, the county will fund a partnership between mental health specialists and the Bakersfield Police Department. To be known as co-response teams, the partnership is intended to divert individuals away from the criminal justice system and into treatment.

County officials hope the teams will patrol a designated area to form relationships with those who live there.

“The really mentally ill individuals that are living unsheltered are not coming into our clinics asking for services, so we have to get out there to them,” said Stacy Kuwahara, director of Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, which will provide the specialists to BPD. “You have to build a relationship with people, it’s an essential part. It’s about building trust, building a relationship. That’s what gets people engaged in services because otherwise they won’t.”

In another effort to increase the presence of mental health professionals in law enforcement, the county will boost the number of mobile evaluation teams used by the Kern County Sheriff’s Office during mental health crises. The $1.8 million effort will deploy four additional MET teams to the street to respond to welfare calls, which often involve homeless individuals.

The county also plans to increase resources for the Relational Outreach and Engagement Model team, which specifically targets high-need individuals who are resistant to treatment. The $5.3 million expansion would increase the amount of professional psychiatric time provided by the team from four to 40 hours and establish an air-conditioned room to meet.

By packaging all of its proposals into one comprehensive plan, the county hopes to make progress on an issue that is notoriously difficult to solve.

“Nobody has the magic ticket to solving homelessness,” Kuwahara said. “Their investment in supporting us and being a partner to find solutions is such an important and valued place to start. We are really making a strong effort that I think is going to produce really good outcomes.”

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.