The Kern County Board of Supervisors has approved a comprehensive plan to upgrade the county’s response to homelessness.
On Tuesday, supervisors unanimously voted to set a hearing for a new ordinance that would make it illegal for individuals to camp and store belongings in many public areas. Under federal law, the ordinance can only be implemented if shelter space is available, so the supervisors additionally took steps to expand the spaces in which those experiencing homelessness can legally occupy, and increased outreach efforts for those with mental health and substance abuse issues.
“It’s not just about going out and cleaning up the area — although that is one aspect of it — but it is about reaching out, making contact, connecting people with services so that they can get help,” Kern County Chief Operations Officer Jim Zervis said during the meeting.
The county plans to use $8.3 million over four years to accomplish its new policy goals. The funding comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package passed earlier this year that in part provides municipalities across the country with money to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
The county received $174.8 million from the federal government as part of ARPA and intends to use a portion of the funding to address homeless populations that have previously avoided large, dorm-style shelters.
“We recognize that there are a variety of unique circumstances that keep individuals from accepting help in the shelters, they don’t go for one reason or another,” Zervis continued. “So we see this as an opportunity to expand our offering and to be able to give different options to folks that may not be ready to go into a congregate setting.”
The proposed ordinance would make camping in many public areas an infraction, subject to an administrative penalty and potentially a fine. Under the new rules, the list of banned camping sites includes sidewalks, alleys, doorways, parks, parking lots, underpasses, riverbeds and bike paths. Camping within 500 feet of a school or library would also be prohibited.
To enforce the new ordinance, the county plans to create two rapid response teams whose primary duty would be to cite and clean up illegal encampments. The county also intends to create a designated parking and camping area outside the M Street Navigation Center for individuals who wish to transition off the street, but aren’t ready for more intensive homeless services.
A parallel plan would see the county construct 30 to 50 tiny homes for a similar population.
“There are those, even my friends … their first reaction is that this is punitive. It is not punitive,” said Supervisor Mike Maggard, who initially proposed the county pursue an anti-camping ordinance. “Imagine wandering the streets, day and night, aimlessly unaware of your surroundings, not knowing where to go, where to eat, in terror, that is the life of the mentally ill on our streets. Nothing could be more cruel than we doom them to that living nightmare.”
The county’s plan is supported by many local homeless service providers and the city of Bakersfield, whose metro area will be the primary target of initial efforts. Representatives for a number of prominent homeless organizations spoke out in favor of the proposed ordinance and its corresponding resources on Tuesday.
“I firmly believe that we cannot criminalize our way out of homelessness, so when I initially heard about this effort, I was a little bit dubious,” said Flood Ministries Executive Director Jim Wheeler. “So I was pleasantly surprised by the scope of the county’s effort.”
He went on to say the county's plan was not simply a "band aid" to the homeless issue, but a comprehensive and balanced effort at reducing it.
In addition to its camping effort, the county will attempt to address mental health and substance abuse among the homeless population by creating and expanding multiple teams of experts available through Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.
For the first time, the county will partner behavioral health specialists with officers in the Bakersfield Police Department. Behavioral Health will also expand mental health crisis teams within the Kern County Sheriff’s Office and expand a mobile unit dedicated to providing street outreach to individuals who have proven treatment resistant.
A hearing on the proposed ordinance was set for 9 a.m. Nov. 9.