A quarter of the nation’s homeless people live in the state of California.
Reports over the years have described the impact of the homelessness crisis in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco. But smaller cities and towns are also experiencing an uptick — including Bakersfield, California.
According to Megan Person, director of countywide communication for Kern County, 46% of people living in the area are one paycheck away from catastrophe.
“We have a huge population of people who are within one to two paychecks of homelessness,” Person says. “So our job as a county is to help move those people into more stable situations.”
There is a radical approach on the table to fight the homeless crisis in Kern County, where Bakersfield sits. The sheriff there is proposing locking up some homeless people for drug and other misdemeanor offenses. The approach has largely been out of favor for decades now.
At The Mission in Kern County, people experiencing homelessness can go for a hot meal, overnight shelter and clothing. James Baker Davis III was outside The Mission in the shade on a bench, catching a break from the oppressive heat, which was 91 degrees in October.
Baker Davis is from Bakersfield, and for years now, he’s been sleeping in relatives’ cars and city parks. Recently, he’s noticed more folks like him out on the street, going to great lengths to find a safe place to rest their eyes.
“People are all over the blocks, sleeping in the park tents right now. They know when to move their stuff,” he says. “They know what time the sprinklers come on. They put a pot over it, a bucket, [to] cover it up. It won’t be wet when we sleep.”
Baker Davis’ observations are backed by data: There’s been a 50% increase in the number of homeless people living in Kern County compared to last year. The county deployed about 300 volunteers last March to conduct a comprehensive count of the homeless population.
Jim Wheeler, executive director of Flood Bakersfield Ministries, has spent his entire career helping homeless people find places to live. He describes the current situation in Bakersfield as a “crisis.” There’s a plethora of reasons why, he says.
For one, it’s expensive to live in California. Then, there’s another, more contentious reason across the state.
“You have some bad public policy,” Wheeler says.
Specifically, he mentions Proposition 47, also called the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, which passed in 2014. The measure reclassified low level felonies to misdemeanors for crimes like possessing drugs, shoplifting or forging checks for small amounts. This action was an attempt to reduce overcrowding in the California state prison system.
Now, five years later, some county officials like Wheeler believe there have been grave consequences.
“You have people who are on the street right now who would normally be in jail. I’m not advocating that we put people who are experiencing homeless in jail,” he says. “I’m just saying that there’s definitely a correlation between that and the number of homeless people who have substance abuse issues that are on the street.”
During the county count, Wheeler says 68% of the county’s homeless population reported struggling with substance abuse problems.
Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood says the problems continues to grow “bigger, bigger and bigger.”
“These people have become enabled, they’ve become empowered, the people who are panhandling are becoming more aggressive,” he says. “There’s a lot of problems that go along with this.”
Youngblood is proposing a radical idea. The county, he says, has over 600 empty jail beds — and he’s ready to use them by arresting homeless people who commit crimes like drug possession and other minor offenses.
“If we run into someone who is in possession of heroin or methamphetamine, there wouldn’t be a ticket. We’d take them to jail and book them in jail. They would then be arraigned in front of a judge who would decide whether they should be released or whether it should be kept in custody until they have a trial,” he says.
If they have a trial, Youngblood says, the judge could sentence them up to one year in jail. During their time locked up, multiple services would be available, such as a residential substance abuse program, child support assistance, anger management courses and a driver’s license class.
“We also make sure that they have follow up with mental health or with drug counselors after they leave jail. We don’t want you to just be a good person while you’re in jail and change your life,” he says. “We want to change your life after your release so that we don’t see you again.”
This idea flies in the face of criminal justice reforms over the last decade that seek to decriminalize drug use by viewing it as more of a health concern than a criminal act.
Throughout the country, court systems are overburdened by court cases. And Youngblood admits he has no doubt the plan will be expensive; he’ll have to hire more staff members if there’s an inmate increase. But he says the lack of response to the people living on the streets ends up being more costly.
Wheeler does not think the answer is to lock people up. But he does feel there is a more nuanced approach that could involve law enforcement.
“I do not believe we can criminalize our way out of homelessness, but in certain circumstances, I think that you sort of need the carrot and the stick,” he says.
The carrot and stick metaphor is a combination of reward and punishment to provoke a desired behavioral outcome.
In the county’s situation, he explains, is if homeless people don’t accept the help and head to shelters, they could then be cited by the sheriff’s department.
The county is in the beginning stages of creating a low-barrier shelter, a place that accepts people on a short-term basis who can’t find temporary protection anywhere else, such as those with drug addiction problems.
In their current shelters, he says, men and women have to split into two different houses, often times separating partners. They also cannot bring their pets. Then, shelters have to deal with how to house an individual’s possessions. These issues combined turn homeless folks away from seeking help.
With these factors in mind, Wheeler hopes to low-barrier shelters more than just a destination.
“Our goal is not to put people in the shelter and just warehouse people,” he says. “Our goal is to move people off the streets and into stable housing.”
Back at The Mission, both of these ideas — the low-barrier shelter and arresting homeless people who commit minor crimes — are appealing to Baker Davis.
It’s difficult and painful to live out on the streets, which he says he has been doing for years. And criminals, he says, are just as dangerous for the housed as they are for the homeless.
“Not for trespassing, don’t lock them up for that. Give ‘em a ticket or something,” he says. But for other offenses that are repeated over and over, Baker Davis says jail is a viable option.
Other cities over the years have also considered similar actions but many of them, which target people for loitering or trespassing, have not gone past the initial phase.
Sheriff Youngblood’s idea, in partnership with the country district attorney, is still in its early stages. The idea still has to go through several steps of approval.
Meanwhile, Kern County says they hope to have the new low-barrier shelter open by the end of the year.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.