In an effort to cut down on the amount of homeless individuals living on the streets of Bakersfield, the Kern County Board of Supervisors agreed to move forward with a plan that could result in a new homeless shelter in the city by the end of the year.
During their Tuesday meeting, supervisors unanimously agreed to allow the county to develop a plan to pay for and construct a “low barrier” shelter at a county-owned site several blocks from downtown Bakersfield, just north of Golden State Avenue.
While the facility will need to receive final approval before it is built, the supervisors’ vote on Tuesday indicated support for the project that has faced resistance by business owners who own property nearby.
The city of Bakersfield had looked into building a similar shelter at Weill Park, a block away from the county’s proposed site. However, after property owners voiced opposition to the location, the city pulled back, deciding to look for other options as it searches for a place to house its own homeless shelter.
“We are at capacity. All of the service providers, and everything that they are doing, are at capacity," said County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop, noting that the existing homeless shelters in Bakersfield are usually filled to the maximum. “It needs a commensurate response from all of us. We need to evolve.”
The county selected an underused industrial site for the location of the proposed shelter, which could house around 150 people.
Sandwiched between railroad tracks, Golden State Avenue, a recycling center and a few scrappy-looking businesses, county officials say the site is one of the best locations for a homeless shelter that can be set up quickly and cheaply.
A low barrier shelter is meant to serve individuals who cannot otherwise gain admittance to other homeless centers either because they have a partner, pets or property that they would have to give up.
The county hopes to draw individuals to the shelter and “wrap services around them” to get them the help they need to get off the streets.
But some fear the site will be a draw for more homeless people, discouraging businesses from expanding into the area.
“If you plop this in our little community, you’re going to devastate us. You’re just going to devastate us,” said local businessman Kyle Carter, who owns the nearby Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame. “I’m a taxpayer, and I would hate to see our county get stuck with something that you just can’t get rid of.”
On the other side of the issue, Executive Director of Flood Ministries Jim Wheeler reminded the supervisors that any place they build a shelter, some people are bound to be upset.
“I promise you that no matter where you try to place a site, there’s going to be opposition,” he said.
And the need for beds may be only one part of the equation.
Sheriff Donny Youngblood and District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer said many homeless individuals are drug addicts with no interest in getting help.
They said they hoped to begin jailing drug offenders who typically get released with nothing more than a ticket after being arrested, in response to the rise in misdemeanor crime.
Their efforts, they said, could work in tandem with the proposed shelter.
The new shelter is expected co-cost between $1 million and $2 million to build, with operation costs running between $1 million and $1.5 million.
The county hopes to secure grants to partially pay for the facility in addition to partnering with the city. It expects the facility to be needed for two to five years.
While the shelter may not solve the county’s homelessness crisis, many at the county hope it will be an important step forward.
“When I look at this issue, I think it’s like we’re about to eat an elephant,” said Supervisor Mike Maggard. “We are next to this big huge thing and we can’t imagine how we are going to conceive of eating a whole elephant. But what’s the old saying? You eat an elephant by taking one bite at a time. This is one bite.”