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Kern County illegal encampment ordinance goes into effect as part of $8 million package to fight homelessness

Shelter beds at Kern County's M Street Navigation Center.
Shelter beds at Kern County's M Street Navigation Center.

The sun is about to set and downtown Delano is buzzing with holiday traffic. Among the local shops and restaurants lit up along Main Street, a makeshift tent is tucked behind an ice cream parlor, next to a back alleyway.

A 35-year-old man named Abram stands outside with his dog on a leash. He shares the space with two other men.

“I'm surprised that they let us be right here this long,” he said.

Abram says he came to Delano in August, finding work packaging grapes. He planned on living with his sister, but when they didn’t get along, he found himself on the streets. Although he was working, he was never able to find a place to rent. Nothing was available, not even on Craigslist.

“It was tough. It was tough going to work because I had to stress out about where am I going to go to sleep at night?” he says.

The city doesn’t have an overnight shelter, even though Delano has the second highest homeless population in Kern County.

Abram says if there was a shelter available, he would take it right away.

The ordinance prohibits camping and living in public areas throughout Kern County, including parks, sidewalks, and within 500 feet of schools, churches and libraries. Enforcing it includes removing and storing property, and issuing fines.

But criminalizing homelessness is not the point of the ordinance, says Jim Wheeler, executive director of Flood Ministries.

“Goal is not to punish people, but to incentivize them to accept services, to go into the shelter,” Wheeler says.

The organization focuses on street outreach for unhoused populations in Bakersfield and Kern County.

“We're working to say, 'Ok, where are you going to go? We want to be able to follow up with you. We want to make sure that you're getting help for the needs that you have,’” he says.

The county says the goal is to use $8.3 million American Rescue Plan dollars over four years to enforce the ordinance and create response teams to focus on mental health.

Half of that money, $4 million dollars, would fund a joint enforcement effort among code enforcement officers, park rangers and maintenance workers in the County’s Public Works and General Services Departments.

Another $2.5 million funds a joint outreach effort with the Bakersfield Police Department. It pays for a behavioral health recovery specialist to be part of a homelessness co-response team with an officer, linking individuals to behavioral health services.

The remaining $1.8 million funds the expansion of the Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services’ Mobile Evaluation Team, dispatched by law enforcement to help evaluate mental health crisis calls.

But the ordinance can’t be enforced if there is no space for shelter available. And shelters in the city and county remain at capacity.

Emma De La Rosa, the Kern County policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability says the real crisis is around housing.

“The county should be trying to provide housing for folks rather than imposing a punitive ordinance on people who don't have a place to stay at night, don't have anywhere to go,” she says.

De La Rosa says using American Rescue Plan dollars doesn’t make sense.

“The purpose of those funds is to respond to the pandemic to ensure that the folks who are most impacted by the pandemic are getting the support that they need. And this ordinance is not doing that,” she says.

Still, the county says the ordinance is the fastest way to meet housing needs. That’s because the funding also goes to two shelter projects: developing tiny homes and a safe camp. Both are targeted for people who don’t want to stay in a shelter.
Just outside the county-run M Street Navigation Center in Bakersfield, Program Services Supervisor Keith Jackson unlocks a gate to an empty dirt lot.

Empty lot behind Kern County's M Street Navigation Center will be used to build the county's first Safe Camp.
Empty lot behind Kern County's M Street Navigation Center will be used to build the county's first Safe Camp.

“Past this gate right here, this entire area right over here is going to be utilized for the safe camping,” he says, pointing to the field.

The lot will allow for private tent spaces and places to park vehicles for about 25 to 30 people, all with 24-hour security, says Jackson.

“If they're not ready, then we don't want to push them. But we want to give them the opportunity to feel safe so we'll provide security, we'll provide food, we'll provide restrooms and wash stations for them as well,” he says.

Inside the navigation center itself, there’s already bed space for 150 people and some pets. That’s in addition to medical, dental, mental health and placement services.

One of the services offered inside the M Street Navigation Center is a pet kennel with a play area.

In Delano, the only service available for unhoused individuals is a navigation center that offers showers, laundry service and food. But it’s only open in the evenings as a drop-in center. The city is working on a plan to purchase a building as an overnight shelter.

Jose Salvador Orellana is co-director and co-founder of LOUD for Tomorrow, a youth-led community organizing group. He’s based in Delano and says he’s used to seeing homeless populations in Delano.

“Right across our office a couple months ago during the whole COVID-19 pandemic, there was an encampment that was, unfortunately, pushed out by the owner,” he says, pointing to an empty dirt lot on 10th and Main Street with construction equipment.

Orellano keeps his community informed about various discussions and decisions happening with the Delano City Council and Kern County Board of Supervisors. He says a LOUD for Tomorrow petition asking the Kern County Supervisors not to consider the encampment ordinance garnered more than 300 signatures in 24 hours.

“Housing is a human right. Everybody deserves a home, a safe and healthy and affordable home that they can call their own,” he says.

Back in downtown Delano, Abram says he can get by during the day. The community often steps in to help.

“People are so gracious here. They pass by and they drop us food every day, every day, every day. We don't lie,” he says.

But he, and thousands of others, need overnight shelter. According to the latest Point-In-Time-Count this year, 2,150 people experiencing homelessness were counted throughout Kern County and Bakersfield.

Of that number, 26% had shelter and 73% were unsheltered; sleeping in parks, empty buildings, cars, and for some, tents behind a local ice cream parlor.

Soreath Hok is a multimedia journalist with experience in radio, television and digital production. She is a 2022 National Edward R. Murrow Award winner. At KVPR she covers local government, politics and other local news.