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

May 1, 2024

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.” 

Read the full story in the May issue of  Western City magazine.

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