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Statement against anti-camping ordinance in Kern County, CA

Written by Brian Davis on . Posted in Blog

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.  

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