Bakersfield’s homeless report card: Much improved, but a long way to go

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Bakersfield City Councilman Andrae Gonzales recently asked city staff to look at Bakersfield’s existing homeless ordinances and compare them to a new anti-camping ordinance that went into effect this week in the city of Los Angeles, which has an estimated 41,000 unsheltered people.

At Wednesday night’s meeting city staff as well as others in the community tasked with managing the homeless issues presented their findings — not just about the L.A. ordinance, but a complete report card of Bakersfield’s progress.

Much of the news was good. Just a few years ago Bakersfield was trying to address local homelessness with a few hundred thousand dollars in federal pass-through funding. Now the city is spending from its own money — $11 million a year in general fund-Measure N dollars and seeing progress — with rental assistance, a rapid rehousing program and the addition of 400 new emergency shelter beds over the past three years.

But where the city’s homeless services, some of which are managed by Mercy House, have experienced failure, two recurring issues are turning up.

Theo Dues of Mercy House, which manages the Brundage Lane Navigation Center, sees one persistence shortcoming.

“This is the one blemish on our operations thus far … is that we’ve had so many self-exits,” he told the council. “I suspect, based on my decades of experience in this profession that the number one reason we have so many self-exits is impulsive and irrational decisions that are made based on a mental illness or chemical addiction.”

But, as Homeless Collaborative Director Anna Laven said, the city has made incredible strides finding innovative permanent housing solutions.

Anthony Valdez, assistant to the city manager, said the city was looking at a possible fall expansion of the Brundage Lane Navigation Center, and the city may bring in some all-terrain vehicles to better police the riverbanks of the dry Kern River, where scores of people occupy illegal makeshift shelters. 

But does the city need additional ordinances based on strategies outlined in the new L.A. ordinance? Deputy City Attorney Joshua Rudnick said the staff’s comparison of the two cities’ approach suggests no.

“So, when it comes down to it,” he said, “when you look at the L.A. ordinance and you look at what we have on the book already, the policies and provisions we have, and what the L.A. ordinance has, it doesn’t provide any new enforcement tools.”

The generally good news about Bakersfield’s progress in addressing homelessness was tempered by Councilman Gonzales’ conclusion. 

It’s clear we’re doing a lot,” he said, “but it’s also clear to folks throughout our community that the problem still persists and that there are issues in every single neighborhood throughout the city.”

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