While the City of Bakersfield waits for a new low-barrier shelter to be built, a team from the local non-profit, Clinica Sierra Vista, has been offering free medical care to the homeless.
While there are the people you see openly living on our streets, there is also a sizable homeless population living in more hidden areas.
The cotton gins in Southeast Bakersfield is one of those areas.
Every Thursday morning, the team hits places just like that, often walking miles by the river in Oildale, looking under bridges, and checking abandoned buildings.
“We give out condoms, syringe exchange, hygiene kits; we try to provide dog food,” said Dr. Matthew Beare with the team. “A lot of wound care, a lot of infectious disease, things like hepatitis C, HIV, syphilis, that’s very prevalent in the community.”
“I think they’ve actually gone above and beyond,” said CJ, who has been living in the cotton gin for the past few months.
Dr. Beare said the key to the team’s success is “building relationships with this population. They know that we’ll be there the next week, and we can provide the services that we have been providing.”
He added, “Statistically, the life expectancy of someone who’s unsheltered is about a third of that of someone who is sheltered, and that’s a significant risk to immediate well-being.”
It’s a problem plaguing all of California: widespread homelessness.
“Housing is very important. The City of Bakersfield, the County of Kern, we’re addressing housing. But we must address the root issues: substance abuse, mental health,” said Mayor Karen Goh.
“It’s striking to me that the population feels like they’re sort of invisible, even though they’re our neighbors, and they’ve been in our communities for years now,” Dr. Beare said.
This street medicine project is done on the team’s own time and on the clinic’s own dime.
“We have funding for emergency shelters, but we need reform in the medical system so we can actually address some of the root issues and make substantial long-term systemic change,” Mayor Goh said.
In the meantime, short-term change comes with compassion.
“It’s easy to forget that you’re talking about human beings,” Dr. Beare said. “You’re talking about people with the same aspirations, the same goals, the same dreams that we all have. They’ve just been marginalized and set aside and seen as almost sub-human.”
Dr. Beare hopes other local doctors will take the initiative to start their own street medicine teams.
“You always got to have hope. Hope is part of love,” CJ said. “If you got love in you, you got hope.”
Now the question remains: will our elected officials also see the value in street medicine, and offer financial support for their endeavors?