Article Local Works By Anthony Valdez 

Bakersfield, known for moving quickly to address California’s homeless crisis, has a simple message: More must be done

Anthony Valdez is the assistant to the city manager for the city of Bakersfield. He can be reached at

The arc of Bakersfield’s homeless response is a familiar one. The city began by addressing the impacts through street outreach and service coordination, before triaging the crisis with emergency shelter and investments in affordable housing. Then in exasperation, it ramped up its state advocacy to ensure the behavioral health housing and treatment beds would be available to get people the care they need to succeed in permanent housing. 

“For a long time, the city of Bakersfield was not in the business of social services,” Mayor Karen Goh said at a recent Public Policy Institute of California discussion on homelessness. “We looked to county social services and the county continuum of care to address homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse. But we couldn’t wait. The crisis was too great.” 

This shift helped the city reach a milestone only a handful of other big cities have reached: For the past two years, Bakersfield has had more homeless people living in shelter than those without shelter. Yet as is the case across California, Bakersfield is staring down an inflow crisis. For every six people placed in permanent housing locally, another ten become newly homeless.

What getting there looks like 

California’s ninth-largest city emerged relatively unscathed at the close of the 2008 Great Recession thanks to its long-standing, lean financial practices. As homelessness began to rise rapidly across the state, city residents in 2018 passed a permanent 1% sales tax by a 90-vote margin. Today, the city’s spending on homelessness has grown to over $20 million a year — about 75% of which comes from sales tax revenue. 

This allowed Bakersfield to quickly ramp up homeless services, building its own 60,000-square-foot navigation center. The city also contributed to the construction of a new county shelter and used state dollars to expand two existing shelters. It made major investments in street outreach and city teams dedicated to connecting homeless residents to services. 

The city’s expansive Brundage Lane Navigation Center, operated by nonprofit Mercy House, includes a 25:1 guest-to-caseworker ratio, three medical exam rooms, two rooms for therapists, eight dorms including a recuperative care dorm, a 50-pet kennel, and a dedicated park. 

This tripling of the region’s shelter beds made an impact, but much work remains. “Bakersfield has one of the lowest unsheltered homeless populations per capita among California’s large cities,” Goh said in her 2023 State of the City address. “But even so, our numbers are not acceptable. Too many people suffer on our streets. Too many residents and businesses experience the negative impacts of homelessness.” 

Much of that work centers around housing. Vice Mayor Andrae Gonzales made it a point to put the word “housing” before “homelessness” when creating the city’s Housing and Homelessness Committee. For the past few years, Bakersfield has dedicated $5 million in general fund dollars to its Affordable Housing Trust Fund. It then leverages those local resources with state and federal funding to help construct permanent supportive housing. The city works closely with Kern County Housing Authority to build hundreds of new units each year. 

Still, Bakersfield officials are worried about proposed cuts to programs like REAP that help cities fund affordable housing. Many cities have housing projects in the development pipeline that rely on this funding. Economic Development Director Jenni Byers says proposed cuts to state and federal programs loom large over city officials.  

This is particularly troubling for people with severe behavioral health issues. In an op-ed for The Bakersfield Californian, Gonzales noted that despite sincere efforts to the contrary, there are still far too many people with severe mental health and addiction issues on the streets.

“These are our aunts, uncles, sons, daughters, cousins who are suffering from untreated schizophrenia spectrum or psychotic disorders, left on our streets to wither away,” Gonzales wrote. “Look around, in Bakersfield and throughout California, it’s clear that the status quo is not working. While we must continue to provide support for those seeking emergency shelter, it is obvious that more must be done. But there are limits to what city governments can do.” 

As part of those efforts, the city supported AB 531 (Irwin) and SB 326 (Eggman), which placed Proposition 1 on the March 2024 ballot. “We find hope in the prospect of new behavioral health housing and treatment beds in the pipeline,” said City Manager Christian Clegg. 

In the meantime, the city council is expanding services for the various sub-groups through its second expansion of the Brundage Lane Navigation Center and more safe camping options elsewhere in the city. 

“Our local nonprofit service providers have met the moment for years,” Goh shared. “We owe them a debt of gratitude.” 

Think locally and act regionally  

As other city leaders have noted, no city can solve homelessness on its own. To that end, Bakersfield has funded a regional action plan that identified the county’s service gaps and brought together stakeholders to develop solutions. Every other week, the city hosts a meeting with its shelter provider, street outreach team, the county mental health department, Kern Medical, police, code enforcement, and park rangers to discuss ways to improve. 

“Over the years, I have worked with several jurisdictions in southern California to develop a coordinated response to homelessness,” said Jim Wheeler, executive director of Flood Ministries, which contracts with the city for street outreach. “I can say that the city of Bakersfield has been deliberate, collaborative, and effective in implementing responses to the crisis of homelessness. I am proud to be a partner with the city in this process and believe that the city’s efforts can serve as a model for other communities.”  

The state has taken notice too. During a recent statewide tour, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Senior Advisor on Homelessness, Hafsa Kaka noted the level of city-facilitated cross-communication and remarked, “I’m excited to take this back to Sacramento and talk about what I’ve seen today.”  

Bakersfield has maintained its entrepreneurial spirit while working through this crisis. Through unrelenting teamwork, collaboration with the region, and creativity, the city is finding effective solutions and streamlining systems — with results. It’s this type of collaboration and creativity that’s needed to end the crisis.