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In this file photo, a homeless shelter sits at the Weir Water Control basin.

The coronavirus pandemic may have outpaced homelessness to become the primary concern on the minds of many Kern County residents, but that doesn’t mean the need for connecting people with shelter has gone away.

The coronavirus pandemic may have outpaced homelessness to become the primary concern on the minds of many Kern County residents, but that doesn’t mean the need for connecting people with shelter has gone away.

Over the last year, two new homeless navigation centers have opened in Bakersfield, one run by the county and the other by the city, giving some relief to the strained safety net. However, the evidence that homelessness remains a big problem in Kern County remains plainly evident.

Over the last year, two new homeless navigation centers have opened in Bakersfield, one run by the county and the other by the city, giving some relief to the strained safety net. However, the evidence that homelessness remains a big problem in Kern County remains plainly evident.

Could it be that a solution is lying in plain sight, potentially an easy fix that just hasn’t been pursued?

Is that answer to homelessness insurance coverage?

That’s what Supervisor Mike Maggard hopes to find out over the next few weeks. He has tasked Jeff Flores, his chief of staff, with looking into expanding insurance coverage among Kern County’s homeless population, and how the county can make it easier for those without permanent shelter to enroll in the programs insurance plans cover.

“We’ve reached that tipping point,” Flores said of the homeless situation in Kern County. He noted that the county could use “any program, any health plan that we can get to get people coverage, and have that coverage treat them and get them off the streets.”

He said he would work to identify how many homeless individuals were already enrolled in insurance plans, and seek to help people who do have insurance access all of the benefits for which they qualify.

“I think there’s a big population out there that could use the services and could be potentially eligible,” he said. “But now we have to do our due diligence.”

It’s a difficult question that could have a complicated answer.

Health benefits are not widely tracked among California’s homeless population. In Kern County, the annual point-in-time count identified 1,580 people experiencing homelessness in January, although it is unclear how many were enrolled in Medi-Cal, the state’s insurance program for low-income people.

“It’s my sense that there’s not a lack of programs to connect people, specifically when it comes to getting them connected to health insurance,” said Jim Wheeler, executive director of homeless outreach organization Flood Ministries. “But there’s always the issue of getting the cooperation of people who are experiencing homelessness to participate in those programs.”

Whether it’s the lack of a photo ID or a phone number, the barriers to signing on to an insurance program can be daunting to someone struggling to survive. And the benefits provided by myriad government agencies can seem impossible to navigate.

Luckily, Kern County is home to a pilot program aimed at fixing exactly that problem.

Whole Person Care is aimed at treating the entire spectrum of difficulties that could prevent someone from being a functioning member of society. Available to those just out of incarceration and the homeless, the program provides medical services, connects people to housing and even removes the tattoos that could be preventing someone from getting a job.

“It’s very holistic, the type of care that we offer,” said Natalee Garrett, director of Whole Person Care at Kern Medical. “The success that we’ve had has been really tremendous, and we’re really proud of the number of people who have gotten their lives together.”

Started in 2017, the program is now at max capacity, serving 2,000 people per month.

“I would argue that it’s already made a huge difference in Kern County, and we at Kern Medical are definitely invested in providing care to the safety net population,” Garrett added. “And it doesn’t get much more safety net than homeless and post-incarcerated.”

The state pilot program, which is also in 24 other counties, was initially targeted to end in December, but COVID-19 could extend the funding another year. Once it does end, the state wants to incorporate the lessons learned from the pilots into health insurance plans.

How that may play out in Kern County remains to be seen.

Flores, who is a board member of Kern Health Systems, which oversees Medi-Cal in the county, plans to ask the organization to look into the issue.

KHS said its CEO Doug Hayward will soon meet with Flores to discuss how the organization can support the county in its effort to enable the homeless population to receive treatment.

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