BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — The 2021 Point in Time Count in Kern County estimated that out of the 2,150 reported individuals enduring homelessness in Kern County, 26% report serious mental illness and 39% report having substance abuse disorder.
“I kind of see them now as living on an island within Bakersfield," said Mark Giesbrecht, a Behavioral Psychiatrist for Kern Behavioral Health & Recovery Services. "They’re our neighbors but there's not a lot of bridges.”
Giesbrecht is the psychiatrist for the KBHRS's new Kern Regional Outreach and Engagement Model (ROEM) program which began in February. The new program taking psychiatric and mental health services to the streets in a way that's never been done here before.
“Not everyone who's homeless has a mental health or behavioral problem but a lot of them do," he said. "A lot of PTSD because they live in a very like risky environment, and they’re sorta on guard all the time, what I’ve learned from talking to them.”
This street psychiatry begins with a team of peers with shared experiences going around the Downtown and Oildale areas looking for homeless individuals who might be struggling with mental illness or substance abuse disorder.
“In the severe cases, we start with a wave and build from there," said Robert Perrine a Recovery Specialist Aid with ROEM.
After the team builds a relationship with the individual, Giesbrecht will perform a psychiatric evaluation to assess their potential treatment and level of engagement.
Since the start of the program four months ago, the program averages around 25 clients at a time. The time of treatment can vary depending on the severity of the case and treatment needed, as well as the ability for the team to remain in contact with the clients. Currently, they are serving 19 clients.
“At first a lot of people are scared to talk to us," Perrine said. "As they begin to open up to us, it’s more like having a friend."
Of those currently being served, 14 are between the ages of 30 to 66 years old, four are 66 and older, and one is between 18 to 29 years old.
The team meets weekly to review cases and determine what level of engagement we have with the individual, to problem solve engagement barriers, and to determine the next steps.
“The individuals that we are targeting are really the most visible though," said Alison Burrowes, Deputy Director for KBHRS. “We found at first, people were quite hesitant. But we actually saw this progress much faster than we thought we would be able to.”
Just like any other doctor's office, the team makes appointments to meet with their clients and follow up with them on treatment. These appointments will take place wherever it is that the client feels most comfortable.
“To watch somebody go from on the street, going through the garbage, to having them cleaned up and smile at us," said Perrine. "It’s a wonderful feeling.”
Perrine knows firsthand how a little kindness and help can change your life. He’s gone from needing help to now being the face who greets these individuals on the streets in hopes to gain their trust.
“I've had a very traumatic life and I understand where these people are coming from,” he said. "It’s been the best six months of my working life.”
Giesbrecht hopes as the Kern ROEM program continues to grow, they'll be able to take on more clients and expand services throughout the rest of the county.
“It’s pretty unique and special to Kern County and probably the whole Central Valley,” he said.
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