California has been facing a homelessness crisis for years now, but that crisis is reaching new heights in nearly every major city. As of January 2020, 72% of those without housing in California are unsheltered. Now more than ever, investment in affordable housing is needed to help people get off the streets. Instead Kern County has released a “comprehensive plan” that makes it illegal to be without housing and neglects to provide safe, secure and private places to re-establish stability while we move out of the pandemic. A “sanctioned encampment” or a congregate living shelter is not a substitute for affordable housing. By violently disrupting people’s lives through encampment sweeps that evict them from their tents and communities, you are only prolonging a person’s homelessness because they are repeatedly starting over. In keeping with CDC recommendations, the National Coalition for the Homeless strongly opposes sweeps and displacement during a pandemic. We support utilization of the hotel program as an alternative to expanding shelter or segregating homeless people into a section of town not of their choice. A real plan does not involve sweeps of those without housing; it does not force people into unsafe shelters; and it does not create a parking lot program or other places not suitable for human habitation as a response. By moving people out of sight, you are only exacerbating the problem and you will find that homelessness will only increase within Kern County.
On November 9, 2021, Kern County will hold a public hearing to discuss and potentially adopt an anti-camping ordinance. This ordinance would outlaw camping on public land and make it illegal to store belongings in public areas. By passing this ordinance, Kern County would criminalize homelessness through fines and citations. While administrative citations may seem trivial, fines serve as one more obstacle to survival among many, punishing people experiencing homelessness simply for not having a house. This is cruel and unconscionable. Why fine people for simply trying to survive? In addition to penalizing unhoused persons, this ordinance would lead to a cycle of evictions for people experiencing homelessness as the county sweeps encampments. Imagine being forced to pack up all your belongings over and over again or risk everything you own being thrown away. These sweeps violently disrupt people’s lives and leave them worse than before. People have lost their tents, beds, ID, medication, important documents, and more as a result of street sweeps. This theft and destruction of people’s property alienates an already marginalized community and makes it that much harder to live. Rather than helping those without housing, sweeps will actively harm them.
Sweeps don’t solve the problem of homelessness; they only serve to push people out of “desirable” or popular areas in the county. Rather than help connect people to housing and outreach services, sweeps are an attempt to make the problem of homelessness invisible. If you can’t see people experiencing homelessness, it is much easier to ignore their existence. Additionally, as unhoused persons are repeatedly evicted, they often lose trust in services providers or become increasingly difficult for outreach teams to locate and help.
Where do you expect people to go when you outlaw camping? No one forced your other taxpayers where to live or in what section of town they were allowed to reside, but this is the proposed policy to those who lost their housing. And while it may appear logical to expect people experiencing homelessness to just go into shelters if they want to avoid fines, this ignores the many reasons why people camp instead – people don’t choose to live outdoors on a whim. People in shelters often face violence, stolen belongings, and poor living conditions. Not to mention the serious risks during the coronavirus pandemic where shelters can put people’s health in jeopardy and increase the spread of the virus due to large numbers of people sharing space indoors.
While this anti-camping ordinance would have terrible consequences if passed, the county has also announced they will invest $8.3 million to create outreach teams for the homeless, with a particular focus on mental health. This commitment is crucial for helping people experiencing homelessness and deserves recognition. However, tying this funding to the anti-camping ordinance risks destroying the program’s positive impacts and harming the very community the county is trying to help.
So what can Kern County do to end homelessness? First, it cannot and should not try to criminalize its way out of homelessness by banning camping. Instead, the county should invest in affordable housing and outreach that can connect people to necessary housing with wrap around services. The County should work to prevent any evictions that lead to homelessness. The county must not sweep encampments to “clean” the streets, rather they should provide services such as public toilets, showers, and trash receptacles to address cleanliness issues without evicting people and throwing away all their possessions. Finally, they should listen to those struggling with housing about their needs and not just the home owners who want to hide the problem.
Passing this anti-camping ordinance will not reduce the number of homeless people in Kern County. If the county wants to truly end homelessness, they must vote against adopting this ordinance and instead listen to people with lived experience of homelessness to identify alternative solutions. Have you thought about sitting down with those who stay outside and ask what they need to move inside? The county’s investment into building affordable housing, improving access to mental health professionals, and substance abuse treatment will help save lives. Don’t undermine this work by criminalizing and punishing the homeless community for trying to survive.