A local grand jury is calling on Kern County to change its attitude toward homelessness. The sentiment “not in my backyard,” otherwise known as NIMBY, must change to YIMBY, the grand jury said in a white paper released Thursday.
In a paper meant to provide solutions to Kern County’s growing homeless population, the grand jury attempted to steer the local conversation toward providing additional housing for individuals living without shelter. As is often the case when discussing homeless issues, reality is more complex than it may appear.
“There is an urgent need for a community wide education program of the populous concerning the homeless,” the grand jury said in the paper. “Many believe that these individuals are a vagrant population that choose this lifestyle. The unfortunate truth is that many of these individuals are youth that have aged out of the foster system and abused women with children.”
But finding solutions for providing shelter for those without homes has proven difficult. In Bakersfield, a lack of affordable housing and a 1 percent vacancy rate have pushed homelessness to levels many say they have not experienced before.
“We have this avalanche of human tragedy occurring that’s impacting all of our neighborhoods,” said Supervisor Mike Maggard. “The fact that it’s not solved is not a reflection of the county being a failure, but it’s a direct reflection on what has been done so far is not enough.”
The city of Bakersfield and the county of Kern opened two homeless navigation centers last year that are meant to provide emergency shelter with as few restrictions as possible. As both projects were being considered by the City Council and Board of Supervisors, nearby residents fought to stop them in their tracks in what could be interpreted as NIMBY movements.
Community backlash also resulted in the rejection of a $383,000 state grant that would have been used by the Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative to place in hotel rooms homeless individuals considered high risk for COVID-19 complications. The collaborative initially tried to lease rooms at the Sleep Inn & Suites on Knudsen Drive before trying the Rosedale Inn. Both attempts were unsuccessful.
However, once homeless projects have been completed, the fears often go unrealized. Maggard said his office has not received any complaints about the M Street Navigation Center.
Councilman Eric Arias, whose ward encompasses the Brundage Lane Navigation Center, also says he has not heard complaints about the project. Still, a proposal to expand capacity at the shelter has drawn some concern from nearby neighbors, he said.
“The community was frank that for decades it’s been asking for some of the most basic amenities and infrastructure. Curb, gutters, sidewalk, putting up street lights and all of those basic infrastructure needs have been ignored for far too long,” he added. “This frustration from the community has been built up for so many years and now we get to a point when we want to build a homeless facility, it seems like there’s some interest to put it in one of the most low income neighborhoods and that to me is frustrating.”
Finding the right blend of solutions to reduce the swell of homelessness present on Kern County streets will be no easy task. According to Deborah Johnson, president and CEO of the California Veterans Assistance Foundation, there are 790 individual’s in the county’s homeless management system in need of permanent supportive housing. Even more have been issued housing vouchers but are unable to find a permanent place to live.
“We do have levels of success, but at the end of the day, it’s really about making sure that we can get the community buy-in to help us create solutions in housing and not hold us back from solutions in housing,” she said. “What we need to find out is, what is the fear from the community? Why do they not want to have projects? What are their real fears? And then we can come up with solutions to tackle those fears.”
The white paper concluded there was no single solution to the issue, and the community must come together to, first prevent homelessness, and secondly provide long-term stability to those living outside.
“The reality is that we as a community bare the responsibility to address this issue. It’s not unique to any one particular part of town. This is an issue that we need to come together on,” Arias said. “We need to be moving as fast as possible on those discussions because that is what’s going to grease the wheels and allow us to get a hold of the housing issue.”