Not Seen, nor Heard
You may not be aware of some of the urban activity behind the driveway that curves around the corner hotel or the sprawls that pan out under the overpass of the highway exit. At night, the darkness seeps into the concrete and makes things less visible. Streetlights cast shadows that darken the panorama and the hum from the neon on the doughnut shop awning muffles their small chatter as they talk amongst each other.
There is safety in numbers and the community recognizes the security and comfort that can be provided by these night camps.
"They are always running us off when we're down by there", says Old Man Dave, talking about his camp by the Kern River. "They come in and take all your stuff down and tell you to move on or go to jail."
The cycle imposed by the city seems a bit confusing. On one sweep they move through the city streets and have all the homeless leave and many of them escape to the parks and the open lots by the river. Then they move through the waterways and knock down the camps and tell people to leave those places. It's a constant motion, a chase with nowhere to go.
We pull into the gas station off Highway 99 and drive up towards the air and water dispenser. The lights from the sign are bright and the cacophony from the cars can be heard through our windows which are rolled-up tight.
"You need to pull up over there and go straight", she says, pointing toward a dirty field. "There's a road there and follow it down."
I am a little nervous because from where the pavement ends, I see nothing but pitch black. I know there is the edge of a freeway on-ramp out there somewhere which forms a bridge over the Kern River, but I cannot see it. The brightness of the gas station lights is harsh, but somewhat comforting, as you look into the darkness of the field and the riverbed.
"Okay", I apply the brakes and put the vehicle into park. I reach for the latch of my safety belt, expecting to prepare for a short hike.
"No, you keep going. Down there", she lifts a finger and points into the darkness.
I squint my eyes and look.
"Keep going out. There's a dirt road there."
I can hear the sound of gravel as my tires move off the pavement. Dust is kicked into the air and forms a thin mist that coagulates on the windshield. The lights from the city in the distance all of a sudden seem a little brighter as I move toward the riverbank. I crawl along slowly looking out the driver's side window to see if I can see the edge of a canal that I know is by the abyss.
"Okay. Right there. I think that's it," and she nods her chin in the direction of what appears to be a tunnel. Her name is Audrey and she has prepared some sandwiches, a rice medley and some salads to give out to the people we encounter tonight.
I put the car into park and turn off the ignition. I exhale slightly. Sometimes I am still scared of the dark. But we are going into new territory as well.
A Shack with a View; Strangers in a Familiar Land
We can see them, camped up against the fence, up on the top of a hill, but still low enough to avoid the stares of any passing cars or the unwanted attention of someone in authority. This position has some advantages as well because having your back up against the wall will prevent anyone from surprising you from behind. In addition, the apex position provides you a view of anyone who might wander into your territory before they can see you.
This might be a particular model you might wish to put into practice if you find yourself homeless, especially if you are physically disabled or female.
We make some noise as we approach. Call out a little so as to not take anyone by surprise.
After all, we have slipped into their neighborhood now. We don't know the street names or see fences, but there is a thriving community here with its own rules. There are property lines and means of commerce. There is a unique system that allows these groups of people to function.
Forming a community is a natural tendency for the human species. Even as nomads, our ancestors formed mobile organizations of groups of people that moved across the land.
And this place is not different. Yes, these are our fellow residents of Bakersfield, but when we slipped into the darkness and towards the riverbed, we traveled into a different universe.
Running from Something
"I came out here from Pennsylvania about eight months ago," she tells us. Audrey offers the young woman a cigarette, we don't ask her name. It really doesn't matter, but we listen to her story.
"What brought you here," I ask.
"A woman I met. I met her online and she was mentoring me. She was a teacher out here and I am only 17."
"How old were you when you started talking to her?"
"Like 13 or 14. She started out as a friend. She knew what it was like to be that way and gave me advice. I came out here to have her be like a foster mom to me because my parents kicked me out is how I became homeless."
She pauses and her friend approaches. They put their arms around each other and laugh. They could be high school seniors posing for a camping photo or sorority sisters in college at an outing.
"And then you ended up here?" I ask.
"Well, she started trying to change it into something different. She wanted things from me..." she trails off. "So I left. I've been out here ever since."
"Why don't you go back?"
"They don't like me being gay."
According to the Williams Institute, 40% of the homeless youth served by agencies identify as LGBT
43% of clients served by drop-in centers identified as LGBT
30% of street outreach clients identified as LGBT
30% of clients utilizing housing programs identified as LGBT
— National Homeless Issues
Adults were Once Children
Statistics indicate that as many as between 1 and 1.7 million youth have been either thrown out of their houses or asked to leave. Many come from homes where they are victims of physical or sexual abuse. There is a significant correlation between homelessness among the teen and young adult population and being a member of the LGBT community.
For those youth in foster care, of the 20,000 annually that reach the age of emancipation, approximately half become homeless within 18 months. The 1995 National Alliance to End Homeless study discovered that approximately 50% of all homeless spent some time in the foster care system (O'Neale, 2019).
Clearly there is a link between adverse experiences in childhood and displacement in later adulthood.
Childhood traumas not only include experiences with the foster care system but cover social ills such as poverty, parental substance abuse, or having a parent incarcerated. According to Paul Koegel, Elan Melamid, and M. Audrey Burman " risk for homelessness is inextricably linked, both directly and indirectly, to policies that affect the health, stability, and wellbeing of households-particularly poor households" (Koegel, et al 1995), which seems to imply that economic disadvantages are nothing new to a majority of those who are in the homeless population.
Finally, the families of our sample members experienced disturbances of many different sorts. Almost one third (32%) reported an adult substance abuser in their childhood home, while 9% reported the incarceration of an adult caretaker and 5% reported sexual assault
— P. Koegel et al
Agencies and Answers
In Bakersfield, there are several organizations that gear their efforts to helping the homeless population. One of the better-known ones is Flood which provides outreach services and assists individuals in obtaining assistance and even housing. According to their website
- Flood helped house 64 households in our community during 2016, some of the most vulnerable homeless individuals.
- Flood has transitioned over 1,000 individuals out of homelessness since its founding in 2007.
Many of the people we talked with on the streets have had contact with Flood and other groups. One of the pressing problems we were told about is the fact that many homeless people do not have identification.
"You need ID to get assistance and to get ID you need money and transportation because you have to go to the DMV. And now with the coronavirus happening, it is impossible because they are always closed," said one man we spoke with.
That is one of the problems we have found is that the many types of assistance that are available are through agencies located in various locations throughout the city. And if you are homeless you need a bus pass and time to go from building to building.
"You can't always get to where you need to go," says one woman, who has been on the street for three years. "It's difficult, you have to try and try."
The city of Bakersfield is working on a one-stop-shop center with a capacity of 450 beds to be completed soon. All the resources will be located in one area, on the city's east side, off Brundage Lane.
According to City Manager Alan Tandy in a news release. “The City looks forward to joining several partners under one unified roof with one objective: to reduce the number of homeless individuals on the streets of Bakersfield.”
When we asked the people we encountered on the street, they seemed pessimistic.
"I'll believe it when I see it," said one woman.
"Yeah, there they go again," said another man.
"Sounds good," said another.
The Bakersfield Homeless Center
The Bakersfield Homeless Center creates a strong safety net for homeless and at-risk families by providing a broad continuum of services which begins with basic shelter.
A Home Away from the Homes
Many of the people we encounter pause when we use that word.
Audrey walks me over to where she has seen a tent supported by shopping carts. "He's over here," she directs me, carrying a paper plate with a TV dinner on it she just microwaved. I see the tarp, out in the open, underneath a sign that says
MOT L VAC NCY
Audrey walks in, as if she were stepping into a nail salon, smiling. I wait outside a minute and pretend to look around the parking lot for anyone that might be suspicious, including the police. She lifts the blue tarp and peeks at me. "C'mon in!" she insists, waving her hands. "Have a seat!".
I follow and pause, a little uncomfortable.
"How long have you been homeless?" I ask as if I were talking to someone about their career, or marriage.
He pauses and looks at me a second, then looks away. For a moment I think he is trying to do calculations.
Then I realize my mistake. "I didn't mean it that way. How long have you been living here."
He inhales and smiles a little. Then looks up. "A few years."
A Place to Rest Your Head
Once a man I spoke with on the street said "I'm not homeless. I have a home. It's right over there," pointing to a tent.
Sometimes our perspective is biased and the meaning of our intentions is hidden behind the wrong words. We can offend without intending to. I remember something my father used to say, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Audrey sits and strokes the dog which sits at the feet of the man we are speaking with in the tent. A few moments ago, I thought it would attack me because it growled and then barked and then tried to charge, the rope around its neck holding it back. A lot of the people I have seen on the street have a dog with them. For companionship and protection. These are among the most fiercely loyal canines I have ever encountered.
All the people we see in the evenings on the street just want a place to rest, and settle for a few moments.
"You have to keep moving during the day," we are told. "They won't let you stay anywhere. People tell you to 'shove off'."
"I always try to be neat and clean up after myself," says the other man. "A lot of the homeless just don't care and leave their stuff everywhere."
Audrey offers the man some bread and he makes a sandwich with the meat from the TV dinner (Salisbury steak) - for his dog first. The dog sniffs it and looks up at the man who smiles and then wolfs it down in one gulp.
I am amazed at how Audrey can carry herself comfortably and make herself at home in what wouldn't pass for a shack. I am a little bit envious of her ability to connect with these strangers, who open up to her immediately. She isn't afraid to shake their hands and even offers a few a warm, genuine embrace
Lights Like Little Stars
I watch Audrey and the two men laugh and can hear some of their conversations as I step outside.
I snap a few more photos and then walk around in circles, just to keep myself occupied. It's mostly quiet now. The sound of someone kicking what sounds like a bottle cap, the quiet hum of an air conditioner, a siren.
The street lamps light up the parking lot and someone calls out from the balcony on the hotel. I look at the tiny house, the shopping carts turned upside down, the sticks and a tarp that rattles a bit and sings in the slight breeze.
I start to move away, slowly, walking backward and then turn away, my back turned to the little wind and the aromas it carries.
Somewhere on the planet, someone has just exhaled their last breath.
And underneath the same sky, a newborn is opening its mouth, making its first sounds.
If You Need Help
- National Coalition for the Homeless The National Coalition for the Homeless - National Coalition for
The Bakersfield Homeless Center. (2020). Retrieved from: https://bakhc.org/
Flood Ministries. (2020). Retrieved from: http://www.floodbako.com/
Koegel, P., Melamid, E., & Bumam, M. (1995). Childhood risk factors for homelessness among homeless adults. American Journal of Public Health. (85)12
Morgen, S. (2019). Bakersfield announces homeless shelter for Brundage Lane. Bakersfield.com
National Coalition on the Homeless. (2020). LGBT homelessness. Retrieved from: https://nationalhomeless.org/issues/lgbt/
O’Neale, S. (2019). Foster care and homelessness. Retried from: https://www.fosterfocusmag.com/articles/foster-care-and-homelessness
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Fin
Fin (author) from Barstow on January 07, 2021:
thank you. Yes, it is amazing how close we all are to being in their shoes and once caught in the cycle, the path is hard to walk away from.
Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on January 06, 2021:
I absolutely love these stories and adventures. I've heard it said that most of us are just one paycheck away from being homeless. California has the biggest population of homeless in the country. How very sad. No one should be out on the street, hungry, cold, braving the elements. I do what I can and wish I could do more.
Thanks so much for writing about these crises. I appreciate your empathy and your caring heart.