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Homeless on the Streets of Bakersfield: On the Move

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Fin lives in California's Central Valley and is interested in social issues and creative writing.

homeless-on-the-streets-of-bakersfield-on-the-move

On Notice

When the phone rings, I pick it up and look at the screen. I don't recognize the number, but immediately have a feeling I know who is calling. I am filled with a odd sensation, as when a stranger approaches and you know what the message is even before words are spoken. The area code is local and as I move to hit the answer key, I know what the caller has to tell me.

"Hey," he says, his breath rising and falling as if he just completed a morning jog. The sun is coming through the blinds in my studio apartment, and I have just started to prepare the roux which will help create gravy for the biscuits in the oven. Already I feel a little guilty because I know the person with whom I am about to speak will not have a breakfast of their own.

"They are coming today. Soon! They just gave us notice and are moving in." I cannot recall the speaker's name, but his voice is familiar. I gave him my number and asked to be contacted when the city comes with the trucks.

"Okay, when?" I ask. I'm a little perturbed that the call is interrupting me at this moment. Had the phone rang about 10 minutes earlier, I would not have to started the breakfast. Had he called 10 minutes later, I would probably be heading out the door.

"I don't know," he replies, still panting. "They told us to move or they'll take it all."

I pause. "All right. I'll be there within a half hour."

I hang up and look around the room. I'm a little hopeful. I have been waiting for a call like this for sometime. I feel a tinge of regret for the man and his associates, but I am also anticipating what might take place and being able to witness it.

I go back to the pan and finish browning the sausage and flour. I lift the jug and pour the milk.

Overview of California Cities

Statistics were compiled from online sources that work with the homeless. Many figures are estimates and some statistics were unavailable.

CityNumber of HomelessPercentage of Unsheltered Homeless

Bakersfield

1,580

63.5%

Fresno

3,641

73.6%

Los Angeles

63,706

72.3%

Sacramento

9,278

N/A

San Diego

7,600

N/A

San Francisco

20,000 (estimate)

N/A

homeless-on-the-streets-of-bakersfield-on-the-move

Movers and Those Who Shake Things Up

One of the efforts of the city to address the homeless situation involves the department of code enforcement. Homeless camps are often found along the Kern River and sometimes in places like Mill Creek Park. Often they can be seen setting up tents along abandoned buildings, near industrial areas, or underneath the overpasses.

One city official, Mike Maggard, has said "they interrupt the ecosystem" and make public areas such as "bike paths unsafe." To address this concern, the city has created an app where residents can describe the exact locations and even send photos of encampments they wish to report.

Homeless people I spoke with report "they come in and tell you take what you can. If you have a dog, you can only take that. Then they come in..."

I am told that the city moves in with these large trucks and bulldozers. "They bury it. They push your stuff into the river. The trucks are like garbage disposals and they crush everything. Pulverize."

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I think of the scene in the movie Soylent Green where the bulldozers come and lift people into the backs of dump trucks. Homeless from various pockets in the city tell me that they give you 30 minutes sometimes and you have to move out. Only with what you can carry. Then the people have to watch as their clothing, bicycles and houses disappear into these large famished machines.

All the vehicles have the city name written on them. In large block letters, indicating a sense of civic pride:

BAKERSFIELD.

Just a View of the Neighborhood

Just a View of the Neighborhood

Once a Supplier of Food - Had You Had the Coinage

Once a Supplier of Food - Had You Had the Coinage

In the Heat and Light of Day

The group I am talking to have managed to survive out here. One couple reports being out here, by the railroad tracks, near an overpass of one of the city's major thoroughfares, Chester Avenue for more than two years. The road moves through the city's quaint downtown and leads into Oildale—a community just north of Bakersfield.

"We stayed here for awhile. Then others came and moved in," a young man tells me. He looks to be in his late 20s and he stays here with a woman. Their house is a series of tarps that looks fairly sophisticated. He tells me that it is comfortable and that the businesses nearby are fairly tolerant.

"They appreciate us," he says, pointing at the industrial track along the railway. "They gave us food once when we cleared the brush out by their fence. And we keep an eye out for them too. They like us here..." he trails off.

That is a statement that I have heard from other homeless who stay near some businesses. There is a relationship based on mutual respect. The owners of small coffee kiosks and out-of-the-way establishments understand that the transients who live near them offer a sense of security.

It is summer and the central valley heat permeates off the rocks and steel girders along the Southern Pacific Route. Their faces of those who are milling about in the community are covered with dust and sweat. I see hope and peace in their eyes, however.

"She's like the mother," the young man tells me. "She keeps the peace and helps resolve conflicts." He points to an older blonde-haired woman who looks haggard and tired. I notice bags of cans throughout the encampment and I am told that is one way they generate income. A small doll stares up and smiles. The people in this small little town are all busy with some task.

I wonder if things were much different when settlers first arrived here in the desert so many years ago.

homeless-on-the-streets-of-bakersfield-on-the-move

Article: Bakersfield is using a new app to fight homelessness

The Southern Pacific

The Southern Pacific

Trains and Abandoned Hotels

We stand around the campsite and the man starts to talk about the abandoned hotel across the street and the empty lot near it.

"The city should take the open areas and turn them into places where we can stay," he says. "No one is using them.". I would soon find out he was referring to the unused space and not the building.

"What about the hotel?" I ask. "Would you consider sheltering options?"

He pauses and lets out a sigh. "We really can't stay in a place like that." I can tell he is searching for a way to explain. "It's hard. We're not used to that. I don't know if you'd understand..."

I think I do. He tells me about society and the structures around it. "We just can't fit in like that. We're used to this." I talk to him some more and gather that he is trying to say that once you have been on the streets for a bit, things that most housed people take for granted become foreign.

"It's hard to explain," adds another from the group. "It's nice, but we just can't adjust..."

It's similar to being what most people would recognized as being institutionalized. You become used to one way of life and trying to be normal is difficult, a challenge. You have to re-adapt to a culture that has become unfamiliar to you. Being put in a situation that you're uncomfortable with becomes traumatic.

And I suppose there is always an underlying fear that you may lose what you have been offered—a place with a comfortable bed. And of course, you probably would understand that this is just a temporary fix, which you will have to let go of perhaps at a moment's notice.

Mobile Graffiti like a movie

Mobile Graffiti like a movie

A loud noise fills the air, which sounds like a broken jukebox turned up to maximum volume. The rocks start to vibrate and a rumbling disturbance moves the air around us. I hear the ringing of bells, and an air horn that seems to shake the tents and trees. I am a bit frightened, but everyone around me seems not to have noticed.

A train appears and moves swiftly across the tracks which are close enough to see small sparks dance and disappear. The monster continues to announce itself in its deafening voice. Boxcars with colorful messages and obese tankers move swiftly past. I try counting the vessels and guess that half a mile of rail cars are moving through the village when the squealing occurs.

In almost an instant, everything comes to a stark halt.

"Oh-oh," says the woman.

"Yeah, something happened," says a man and looks up from the pile he was rummaging through.

"What is going on?" I ask.

"It might have hit something," says the man I was speaking with earlier. "There might be something on the tracks."

I think of the stories I've read of derailments and wonder if I should be alarmed. There may be a pedestrian somewhere along the path. Perhaps another train.

"Yeah," the man tells me. "Those things don't usually stop like that...unless something is going on."

"They can take a mile to stop," says someone.

Everything is quiet for a bit. A few minutes go by, then more. The train hovers like a silent cat about to pounce on some unsuspecting prey. I look down the tracks, in the direction the train was coming from, wondering if there is a caboose. An endless stream of metal machinery is all I can see.

Ten or twenty minutes go by. Then the wheels cough and the sleeping cars seem to come alive again. Quiet metallic sounds initiate and the rumbling returns. Soon, the train disappears into the horizon, headed for points east.

homeless-on-the-streets-of-bakersfield-on-the-move

A Sign of the Times

As the black SUV approaches everyone comes to attention. A tall man, wearing a badge and a gun, dressed in black, steps out. He smiles and looks at us through reflective sunglasses. His license plates indicate he is driving a Federal vehicle.

He doesn't say much, but everyone here seems to know who he is. He takes out two large signs and puts them in visible areas.

"Are you moving them out?" I ask the officer.

"I just place the notices," he says. "The city will come and take care of that. I work for the railroad."

Everyone is a little quiet, but I can tell by their physical language that this is a familiar routine. Members of the group look at each other and it seems as if they have communicated a message and made a decision.

"We should get ready," says the man from the camp out loud. "Just in case."

The railroad officer looks us over and steps back into the dark truck. He drives down the dirt path next to the train tracks, and slips into the horizon that swallowed the Southern Pacific earlier.

The villagers head back to their tarps and arrange things in neat piles.

"Now we just wait," says the camp man.

A sign just posted by a railroad officer

A sign just posted by a railroad officer

Encouraging the homeless to move on before the machines move in

Encouraging the homeless to move on before the machines move in

Invitations

In Bakersfield, the average daily summer temperature nears 110 degrees and that would be in the shade, if there was any. Fire ants do their solar dance, the thin sand under your feet sweats dust and shines, and you are circled by an imaginary desert oasis.

Abandoned hotels or rundown lodges that should be condemned. Empty buildings filled with the carcasses of vending machines, the permanent stench of oil from the nearby wells.

These are some of the roadside attractions you might encounter should you dare to venture off Highway 99 or Interstate 5.

I am hot and I am tired and I don't think the wrecking crews are planning on stopping by this area soon. Whether it is the heat, another encampment distraction, or if this particular location is to remote and inaccessible, I am not sure. My excitement has waned and I feel a bit guilty that I wanted to actually see these crews in action as they tore their way through this tiny little town.

"Hey," my friend says to me from the camp. "If you want, you can come and stay with us for a bit." Everyone else becomes silent and even though they are staring at the ground, I can feel their eyes on me.

I pause, not sure how to answer. I am a bit moved that they would offer me the opportunity to see into a day in their lives, an overnight. I have weekends free. I am also afraid of hurting their feelings but also realize they may be suspicious of my sincerity.

The prospect of being out here with nothing for a bit would definitely be unsettling. I could gain a lot from the experience. I also realized this would not be completely authentic, because I had a comfortable fallback.

I was housed.

A woman stands in front of her house in her neighborhood

A woman stands in front of her house in her neighborhood

Homeless by Choice?

I walk away from the camp and think about the invite some more. What would I bring? I could pick up a sleeping bag, have some extra water, pick up some snacks.

I get back to the car and when I open the door, the heat is vaporizing. I quickly turn on the air. I head toward Chester Avenue and drive under the overpass where they are staying. I get back to my apartment and unlock my door.

I wash my hands and my face and enjoy the cool running water. I look at myself in the mirror and dry up with a clean towel.

I turn on the fan, I open the refrigerator door and look inside and shut it. I open some cabinets and see the canned goods, the boxes of dry gods, and close them again.

I take out my phone and set it to silent. The bed creeks under me as I lie down and look at the ceiling.

Before I shut my eyes, I think about what the man had told me, that when they did stay in a hotel, they couldn't do it. The soft beds, running water, cool air. It wasn't something they were used to.

"We choose to be this way. It's hard to explain..." he said to me.

I close my eyes and relax a bit, breathe in and exhale. I hear a neighbor mowing the lawn, what sounds like a delivery truck, the call of a child.

I think about chance and randomness. You are given things, opportunities and options. New things become comfortable after a bit, then normal, and then expected.

I know I will sleep well tonight in my little studio apartment, embraced by cool air. Wake up and take a clean shower should I choose to.

That night I dream I am in an open field, with the night sky above me. Winds embrace the grasses under my body. I hear a few cars on the nearby freeway, a train approaching.

I am comfortable and I do not thirst. My body and mind are at peace. In my dreams the tents nearby are lit by tiny fires and the silhouettes of people who are laughing quietly.

Kern County Makes an Effort to Address Homeless Concerns

For Help

If you are experiencing homelessness, don't be afraid to ask for help. There are people in your community who can assist and not all of them are affiliated with religious organizations.

Most are non-judgmental and many have been in your shoes. There are people who care.

You matter.

Most communities have a 211 line that can guide you to the right area.

If you want, please feel free to email me—I cannot make you any promises, but I will make an effort to connect you with someone in your area.

homeless-on-the-streets-of-bakersfield-on-the-move

When life gets hard, try to remember: the life you complain about is only a dream to some people.

— Anonymous

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.

© 2022 Finn

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