As I was driving through downtown Bakersfield on an early weekend morning, I saw two individuals who appeared to be homeless crossing the street carrying their belongings. While waiting for the traffic light to turn green, I asked myself what led these two individuals to the point of being homeless.

That thought stayed with me throughout the remainder of the day.

I realized that everyone has their own story and experiences and/or events that could have contributed to these individuals becoming homeless.

The truth is that people without homes can be our parents, siblings, friends or even us one day. They are people like you and me.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have a bed to sleep on every night, you can still be affected by this homelessness problem. We all share the city of Bakersfield and its surroundings. Whether you are homeless or not, we are all affected as we share public spaces with those that are living in undesirable living conditions. This problem can create divisions within the community that can foster fear and uncertainty for everyone.

Not all homeless people are bums or criminals. Some homeless individuals have no other choice but to live out on the streets.

They are simply trying to survive.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, the top causes of homelessness among families and unaccompanied individuals are: lack of affordable housing, unemployment, poverty, low wages, mental illness and the lack of needed services and substance abuse and the lack of needed services.

Unfortunately, there are families and individuals that may have lost their jobs, lost their homes due to an economic crash or are suffering from a mental illness that limits their ability to work. Additionally, there are also college students that are facing housing insecurity, some of whom are forced to live in their car or jump from one friend’s house to another.

It is important that we, as a community, work together and support the homeless population by offering more shelters and necessary services instead of labeling and criminalizing the population. We need to focus on people’s needs when providing resources and not expect someone to recover without one’s help.

It is crucial that more services are offered for those that need affordable housing, job placement, mental health services and substance abuse programs. There is also a tremendous need for additional shelters.

Currently, Bakersfield and its surroundings relies on two shelters. The Mission at Kern County offers 240 beds to men, while the Bakersfield Homeless Center offers 206 beds to women, children and single fathers. Together the shelters offer a total of 446 beds each night to homeless and at-risk families.

Are 446 beds enough to house all of the homeless families and individuals in Bakersfield?

At the beginning of the year, the Kern County Homeless Collaborative reported that 1,330 unduplicated homeless people were counted countywide in shelters and on the streets on the night of Jan. 30. That number represented an increase of 50 percent to the 885 homeless people counted in January 2018. We can only assume that the numbers will grow even more the next time the homeless population is counted in January 2020.

It is no secret that homelessness is a major problem in Bakersfield and its surroundings that will continue to get worse if no action is taken. Homeless people will continue occupying the streets until the city builds more shelters capable of housing the homeless population.

We have to be realistic and acknowledge that we will not be able to fully solve the problem due to the cost of building a new shelter, but we can be certain that building a new shelter will help.

One person alone cannot solve the problem. We also cannot leave the entire task to city officials. Change does not happen instantly, we have to become involved. If we want to enhance our city, we must take action as a community.

If you want to help change your community, Jan. 24, 2020, will be the night. You can register now online at endkernhomeless.org to help count the number of homeless people in the county. By doing so, officials will have a better understanding as to how many people are homeless, which will help push officials to create more homeless shelters and provide the necessary resources.

This is not a “us vs. them” problem. This is a community effort. Take action and help now.

Kimy Kerrema Salazar and Kimberly A. Bazile are students at the University of Southern California pursuing master’s degrees in the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.