As our community has struggled to address the crisis of homelessness, much of the response unfortunately has been prompted by fear, misunderstanding and, in some cases, downright contempt for our fellow man.
Fear that providing persons experiencing homelessness a safe place to sleep and access to services will make things worse for a neighborhood or community. Misunderstanding that somehow an emergency shelter is a bad thing, despite the amazing contributions the Mission at Kern County and Bakersfield Homeless Center have made to our community over the past several decades. Contempt as evidenced by the notion there are “deserving” or “legitimate” homeless persons, stating or implying that those who struggle with drug addiction or mental illness don’t deserve help.
Our elected officials should not acquiesce to this fear and misunderstanding, but instead demonstrate leadership and take decisive action based on facts and evidence-based practices. In addressing the most controversial topic of where to site shelters and other housing resources, leaders should:
• Locate shelters and housing serving persons experiencing homelessness based on objective criteria, including zoning, proximity to the population served and cost and availability of property
• Consider the best interests of the overall community over the narrow interests of neighboring property owners
• Not allow community input to delay the approval of a shelter/housing site but rather consider input when developing the project design and operational plans
• Expedite the approval of shelters and housing serving persons experiencing homelessness
• Help educate community members about the benefits of shelters and housing to combat widespread misunderstanding and fear.
We can effectively address this crisis but our community needs decisive leadership, a commitment to evidence and facts and a willingness to understand and show empathy for our struggling neighbors. When we do so, we will collectively embrace rather than reject solutions and ultimately see progress on the streets and most importantly in the lives of those in need.
Stephen Pelz is the executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Kern.