Since 2005, I’ve had the privilege of participating in the annual Point in Time Count (aka homeless census) for Kern County.
Each time I participate, I’m moved by the plight and the stories of the individuals we interview before dawn who are sleeping on the streets and alleys, under bridges, in abandoned buildings and on vacant lots in our community.
After the count, I’m inspired to take action and reminded why we’re in the business of providing affordable housing to those in need.
But then life gets busy again, the days go by, and the urgency and memory of individuals met fades.
This year, I hope, is different. What I saw and experienced in the early morning hours of Jan. 25 was unlike any other year. Our census team of three was overwhelmed with nonstop interviews. There seemed to be someone around every corner. In fact, we ran out of time and ended up not interviewing dozens of likely homeless persons.
But beyond the increase in numbers were the compelling life stories we heard and observed. The 19-year-old young man, just a few years from childhood, who has been homeless for six months and living in a dark, cold, and dirty alley. He reminded me of my son who is the same age, yet he is experiencing none of the opportunities afforded to my son.
There was the woman sleeping in another filthy alley who is five months pregnant. I wondered what life has in store for her precious unborn child.
Then there is the elderly gentleman we met who is deaf and has been homeless for over a year. We didn’t have a sign language interpreter so he had to read the questions and point at the answers. After we completed the interview, I gave him the standard “goodie bag” which was a small plastic bag containing socks, a cereal bar, hotel type soaps and shampoo, and a few other essentials.
He motioned for me to give him a pen and pulled out a notepad he kept under his coat. I then watched him carefully write on the notepad the following: “Please give this to someone less fortunate than I. I have enough.”
I didn’t know what to say and began to cry. A man who has all of his worldly possessions on his back and who could certainly use this simple goodie bag was thinking of others who might have a greater need than his. What if I actually did that? Something my faith calls me to do.
What if even 10 percent of our community did what this gentleman who has nothing did? We could certainly put an end to long term homelessness in our community. Some say they don’t want to be housed. They all do. They just can’t see themselves in a home because it seems such a distant reality.
Please consider helping. We need individuals and businesses to volunteer and donate to fund the services and support needed to house all of our neighbors who are homeless. Contact the Kern County Homeless Collaborative at (661) 834-1580 for more information.
Stephen Pelz is executive director of the Housing Authority of the County of Kern. The opinions expressed are his own.