NewsKern's Homeless Crisis


Community members address Kern County homeless ordinance

Posted: 4:36 PM, Nov 09, 2021
Updated: 2021-11-09 21:29:33-05

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Homeless people in the Bakersfield metro will be removed if they are camping in public areas or are 500 feet from schools and other public establishments.

The ordinance was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Kern County Board of Supervisors after lengthy public comments by community members on both sides of the issue.

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Patriot Park is just one of the many places in Kern County where you’ll see people live out of tents and shopping carts. In the past, residents who have called law enforcement about it said they have been told officers cannot do anything. The anti-encampment ordinance changes that. But on the flip side, it is also a concern for community advocates.

“I don’t want to kick the homeless out. They have never been mean to me. But I do feel a little unsafe and it is very very unhealthy,” said Sheri Smith, a Kern County community member.

Smith is 71 years old and has lived in Kern County for 40 years. She said she walks her dogs every day at the park, but instead of enjoying it fully, there is a concern. She wants the county to look at the living conditions of the homeless living in the park and to do something to increase hygiene among that community as she said she can smell human waste when passing by.

While Smith is on the fence about the ordinance, others felt strongly about approving it.

“So, I think we need to do something, and I commend you guys for the ordinance. Sounded good, really good, so I am completely for it,” said Jeff Warren, a Kern County resident.

Kern County Ordinance Chapter 8.3, Title 2:

  • It will prohibit camping, sitting, or lying down with the intent to camp in public areas such as sidewalks, streets, alleys, doorways, and entrances to buildings in such a way to obstruct vehicular traffic or pedestrian access as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L.
  • No. l0l-336, 104 Stat. 328 (1990), as amended from time to time.
  • It will prohibit camping, sitting, or lying down with the intent to camp, within 500 feet of a fence, entrance. or exit of a public or private K-12 school.
  • It will prohibit camping, sitting, or lying down with the intent to camp within 500 feet of an entrance or exit of a public library or facility that provides housing shelter. supportive services, or storage to homeless persons.
  • lt will prohibit camping, sitting, or lying down within l0 feet of a public sidewalk or curb adjacent to residentially zoned property, with the exception of the property owner or with that owner's permission.
  • It will prohibit the storage, use, maintenance, or placement of personal property in public areas such as sidewalks, streets, alleys, doorways, entrances to buildings, public parking lots, parks, underpasses, riverbeds, bike paths, and open spaces
  • Establishes a process for notice and enforcement, including removal of property.
  • Establishes a process for collecting and preserving removed property for 90 days.
  • Establishes a process to connect the homeless to available shelter space and precludes the enforcement of the ordinance if no such shelter space exists.
See Full Text of Ordinance Below

How to handle homelessness has always been a debate in Kern County, including when it comes to the use of force within the police department.

“When police interact with unhoused people who have mental health issues or a mental disability, those situations can escalate to the point of deadly force,” said Maira Rios, a policy advocate, and organizer with the ACLU of Southern California Bakersfield office.

The greater homeless plan proposed by the county does include social workers to respond to these calls along with law enforcement, but Rios argued any police presence would be counterproductive to creating that trust among the homeless.

“There is also the possibility of additional charges being tagged on like disturbing the peace if somebody does protest the citation. So there are opportunities here for criminalization even though this board is saying that this is not a criminalizing ordinance,” said Rios.

But others feel differently. Anna Laven with the Bakersfield Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative argued law enforcement is needed on these calls.

“We would not want our street outreach teams who we want to be trusted messengers to also be acting as law enforcement. So really when you are looking at laws or ordinances that have passed in our community, those who you want enforcing that would be appropriate out of law enforcement,” said Laven.

Meanwhile, the infraction or administrative penalty that would be given to any individuals who do not comply with the officers removing them was also a point of concern for those against the ordinance. In Kern County, these start at $100 and increase by repeated infractions.

The county argues the ordinance is not about the citations.

“That is really not the point of the ordinance. The point of the ordinance is to disrupt behavior. To be able to go in and engage with people,” said James Zervis Chief Operations Officer for Kern County.

Although the ordinance is meant to eventually cover the entire county, it is beginning with Bakersfield metro area which community advocates say is a concern.

Kern County passes anti-camping ordinance

"This ordinance is only going to be centered in unincorporated areas because of lack of resources or limited resources, which means that the folks who are homeless are going to be spread out to the outskirts of the county, said Emma de la Rosa, a policy advocate with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. "So Supervisor Couch, Peter, Perez, you all have most of the outskirts of the county. This is going to be affecting you the most. So it is concerning that this is only going to be focusing on that specific area. It is going to cause a problem for you all later."

The ordinance that passed on Tuesday is similar to the one the City of Bakersfield already has in place, which bans camping on sidewalks and other areas. The county used this as an example of why they don’t believe homelessness will spread to other communities.

"I think we have some experience to look back on to say you know we haven’t seen that occurring in the past," argued Zervis. "If we do, we will certainly respond and have to adjust so that that is not happening. But typically folks stay in the community that they are in."

The ordinance also states the homeless individuals cannot be removed if there are no beds available in shelters. This is why the Board of Supervisors argued the ordinance is not enforceable right now, which left those opposing the ordinance wondering why it is being implemented instead of using these funds elsewhere.

"We think it will be a better use of funds to actually support homeless folks by building more shelters, to give money directly for unhouse folks. We think that instead of criminalizing, we should be leading with compassion, and right now this ordinance is not that," said Jose Orellana, co-director of LOUD for Tomorrow.

The ordinance will go into effect 30 days from Tuesday and will begin first by being implemented in the metro Bakersfield area.

Although the Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance unanimously, there was a heated argument between some community organizers and Board Supervisor Leticia Perez. It started when a community organizer went over her allotted time to speak with the board and refused to end her comments.

The organizer was asked to leave the meeting and was going to be escorted out by a Kern County Sheriff's deputy when another organizer stepped in saying the sheriff was not needed. Both ladies sat down which prompted another deputy to come near and the board to go into recess.

The first organizer walked out and the second organizer refused to leave saying she had not had a chance to speak. While arguing with the deputy, Supervisor Perez chimed in calling the organizer a paid actor. The two argued until Perez walked out.

After a third deputy stepped in the second organizer was escorted out and the board resumed the meeting.


Community organizer argues with Board Supervisor Leticia Perez

Ordinance Chapter 8.30 Title 2