A chill fills the air this week and more rain is expected. Winter is on its way. It is a season welcomed by those of us who are fortunate to have families, friends and secure homes. This Thanksgiving weekend has been all about counting our blessings, staying cozy inside and being protected from the weather.
But an increasing number of people in Kern County are not so comfortable and protected. They have few blessings to count. They are living in homeless shelters, or on the streets, where they are cold, hungry, sick and hopeless.
A survey conducted last January revealed 1,330 people in Kern County were “experiencing homelessness.” It was a 50 percent increase from the year before. It was an increase from the year before that.
Some of the increase likely can be attributed to the increased number of volunteers who are joining the effort to conduct the annual homelessness count, which is required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In 2018, about 150 volunteers conducted the count. In 2019, the count was supported by 300 volunteers. For the 2020 count, which will be conducted from 3:30 to 10 a.m. Jan. 24, the Kern County Homeless Collaborative hopes to enlist 500 volunteers.
The annual “point in time” count is an imperfect way of determining the scope and nature of the nation’s growing homelessness problems. Many people who should be included are intentionally hiding from volunteers, or are hunkered down in unlikely places and temporary housing. So, the numbers reported are recognized as an “under-count” of homeless people.
But these annual counts, which have been conducted for nearly two decades, are useful in that they provide a snapshot of trends, conditions and causes, and help identify groups of people who are homeless. With this information, programs to combat homelessness can be developed and funded. The effectiveness of existing programs can be evaluated.
There are many causes of homelessness -- substance abuse, mental illness, veterans’ disabilities, lack of jobs, crime, domestic violence, shortage of affordable housing and public services, and poverty.
And there is disagreement over how to solve the problem. Regrettably there even is the temptation by some to use homelessness as a “wedge issue” to score political points by affixing blame on one political party or another, and to foment public fears.
Homelessness is not a new problem. In some form or another, beggars and vagrants have been kicked to the curb of history for generations. And it is not unique to one city or state, or even political party. It is a national dilemma stemming from shared problems. It can only be solved by shared solutions and people working together, rather than being driven apart.
In Bakersfield and Kern County, we have seen an amazing and united response. Residential neighborhoods and commercial districts have united, as have churches and charitable organizations. Government agencies and businesses are working together. And average citizens have stepped forward with their ideas and offers of help.
Kern County Supervisors recently moved forward with plans to build an emergency shelter near downtown Bakersfield to move homeless people off the streets. Bakersfield City Council members also have expressed a commitment to providing temporary housing, and funding increases for security and cleanup downtown, where the homeless congregate.
But before addressing homelessness, we must know how big the problem is. In a nutshell, that is what the Jan. 24 “point in time” count intends to do. Please help.