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Bringing awareness and resources for youth experiencing homelessness

There are more than 5,000 students experiencing homelessness in Kern County, but local organizations help them obtain basic necessities tailored to their needs, including their emotional well-being.
Clothing for homeless kids at KHSD Lynx
Posted at 8:37 PM, Nov 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-17 17:05:45-05

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — People never imagine that the kid who spends all day at the library or has an overstuffed backpack is struggling to find a warm place to sleep at night.

As of October 2022, records show there were 254 youth ages 18 through 24 in Kern County, that made the BKRHC or Bakersfield Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative system. Of those, only 38 are sheltered, meaning 216 of them are living on the street.

Further more, because the system does not county couch-surfing as homeless, this means the youth are living in places not meant for human habitation or at an emergency shelter.

It's an issue that impacts foster youth as well, with 26 percent or 66 of the total 254 formerly being in foster care. But there is hope, as Cynthia Lira-Martinez who was in foster care and homeless during her late teens has come to know.

"The only clothes, the only shoes I had, what was in there was everything I had, it was my home, I was living out of a backpack," said Lira-Martinez as she recalls her time being homeless.

One would say too many life lessons at too young of an age. Lira-Martinez was placed in foster care at eight years old and was in and out of the system until she was 18.

"I would fall asleep during school hours and they would be like oh she just doesn’t want to do nothing, but little did they know that desk, in that classroom was the only warm place that I had to get rest." said Lira-Martinez.

Lira-Martinez says that’s the case for many foster youth, as, unlike others, they don’t have a family to turn to for help.

She also recalls spending those nights in a public restroom hoping no one would harm her, acknowledging human trafficking is real, and people take advantage of homeless youth.

"At 17, I already had a daughter, was pregnant and homeless, fleeing from a domestic violence situation," said Lira-Martinez.

Finding a foster home that would take her and her daughter was nearly impossible. But, she pushed through for her daughter and that’s when she found the Kern County Network for Children Dream Center.

Although a majority of foster youth do not experience homelessness, the Dream Center helps all foster youth up to 24 years old. It can be helping set up an apartment, providing life skill workshops, and for those facing homelessness, accessing basic necessities like clothes, a shower, and laundry.

Lira-Martinez found those resources but also mentors through the center.

"I didn’t think I was ever going to get out of the situation I was in, but I constantly had [my mentor] Jayme telling me you got this you can move forward," she adds.

Now she has her own house and is on the other side of the counter as part of the peer support staff at the center. She serves as that voice for those who have faced similar struggle, some of which she remembers from her time being homeless.

"I just tell them, I am here and you can make it here too. There is no way you can’t change your life around from what we grew up knowing," she shares.

But it's not just up to people like Lira-Martinez, she shares the center runs on donations and this November they are having a sleeping bag drive.

Sleeping Bag Drive at the Dream Center

Watch the full interview with Cynthia Lira-Martinez:

FULL INTERVIEW: Cynthia Lira-Martinez, Peer Support Specialist

It isn’t just aged-out foster youth that can face this situation. During the past school year, more than 5,500 students across Kern County met the McKinney Vento or state’s standard for being qualified as “homeless youth.”

Of those students, 421 of them were identified as unaccompanied homeless youth meaning they are not with a parent or guardian & are homeless.

KHSD Lynx is another organization looking to help homeless youth. Unlike the Dream Center, they focus on all students struggling.

It all started when Melissa Benson, who had experienced homelessness in high school herself, wanted to make sure other students did not go through what she did.

So her and her husband, Scott Randolph, say they partnered up with the counselors all over the school district and began collecting clothes that homeless youths would actually want to wear.

“ I didn’t have any idea about the homelessness that she experienced when she was in high school,” Randolph remarked.

But he got to work and Lynx took off in 2019. Today they prepare hygiene kits, provide each of those students with 10 different outfits to wear, and give them new pairs of shoes through a partnership with Vans.

“When they come in and find, ‘Wow, those are clothes I would wear,’ that is really neat,” said Randolph.

He adds that because Lynx doesn’t take funding from the state, they are able to help all students in need and not be tied to the McKinney - Vento state standard for “homeless youth” like state-funded organizations are.

Now Lynx is focusing on collecting department store bags so students don’t have to carry the clothes, hygiene kits, and other resources in a trash bag that can be sometimes uncomfortable for children to try and explain.

“We want to make the experience feel like they actually went to the mall and got something nice,” explained Randolph.

The Lynx program is looking to expand their operations past Bakersfield and into the more rural Kern communities like Wasco and Delano. If you would like to donate bags or reach out to Lynx to offer other types of donations, you can contact them through their Facebook page.