For Kern County’s homeless youth, life can be chaotic, frightening and exhausting. In any given month, county data indicates around 200 young people sleep in places like cars and public parks.
Homeless-service providers believe the true number could be much higher.
The population proves difficult to reach, as many teens and children hide their struggles due to the perceived “embarrassment” of asking for help and to avoid being exploited.
“It was cold. I was scared. I had nights where I wished that I just wasn’t here because I didn’t want to be going through that," Cynthia Lira-Martinez, a 21-year-old peer support specialist at the Kern County Network for Children Dream Center, said of her time sleeping in public parks during spurts of homelessness she experienced as a teenager. "At that time, doing better felt impossible. I just felt like everything was out of my control and I would never be able to do anything because I didn’t have any support."
Finding housing for homeless youth can be challenging, however. In Bakersfield’s tight market, landlords tend to select applicants with strong credit and a rental history, something children often lack.
But a new state grant that funds 34 rental units specifically set aside for homeless youth will help address the problem. The $7.7 million grant will fund the renovation of a church and office building in Oildale into a housing complex with supportive services tailored to youth.
It is one of two grants awarded to the Housing Authority of the County of Kern in December. The other, an $8.4 million grant to develop 40 units of permanent supportive housing at a now-vacant lot in Bakersfield, will address the general homeless population.
Taken together, the funding will provide affordable housing when it is badly needed.
Homelessness among both adults and children has risen over the past few years. Meanwhile, vacancy rates have plummeted, reaching 1 percent in July.
“When we see the opportunity to apply for more funding for individuals who need services and never re-enter homelessness again, we like to pursue it aggressively,” said Housing Authority Assistant Director Heather Kimmel. “We got our applications in almost the day they were available to be submitted. We were ready to submit them. We wanted to be as competitive as we could.”
The funds come from Project Homekey, a roughly $2.8 billion state initiative aimed at developing new affordable housing units quickly. Last year, Kern County received $15 million through the program, which was intended to be used to develop two hotels, a vacant lot and a condo into units for 150 community members.
The latest round of funding extends Homekey’s reach as the state looks to address a rising homelessness crisis.
“Today, communities as diverse as Healdsburg and Kern County are stepping up with innovative solutions — such as rehabbing an existing empty office building into supportive housing for homeless youth,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a news release. “This is what Homekey is all about — providing Californians in need with not just quality housing, but quality housing with the supportive services they require, located near the amenities they need."
All Homekey projects must be completed within 12 months of the award date. Another round of $1.3 billion is expected to be delivered next autumn, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development, the department in charge of distributing funds.
Kern County’s homeless youth housing development will be run through a partnership with Covenant Community Services, a Bakersfield-based nonprofit focused on foster youth, a subpopulation particularly vulnerable to becoming homeless. The Housing Authority hopes Covenant’s experience with youth will enable the project to provide young people with the tools they need to successfully enter the workforce and live independently.
Covenant organizers could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Lira-Martinez said the Project Homekey development “would have meant everything” to her had it existed when she was seeking a stable place to live. She experienced difficulties finding a place to live, saying landlords preferred applicants with a housing history, and homeless shelters prioritized the elderly and pregnant, leaving youth to fend for themselves.
“I was always in survival mode,” she said. “Things were always happening to me. Nobody would let you stay at their house for free. I was constantly going through a lot of traumatic stuff for years.”
Eventually, she found her way to the Dream Center, where she was connected with a permanent housing solution.
“I’m grateful for the place that I’m in now,” she reflected. “It would have meant a lot to me to know that there’s a place that I would have been able to go and not have troubles for so long.”