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How the Other Half Lives, On the Streets of Bakersfield 3: Urban Camps

Updated on November 28, 2020
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Fin lives in California's Central Valley and is interested in social issues. and creative writing.

Living and Surviving

In my third section of my essays on the Homeless I will look at what I refer to as urban camps. I define this group as those who live within the city limits, on the streets - often within business centers - and set up temporary, self-constructed, housing units. These can be people who are mobile, along with their communities. These centers generally are designed to set up a "living center" for a few days and then move on, either by choice or coercion.

Some become small towns and remain in abandoned shopping centers, parking lots or blind alleys where they can live undisturbed for months at a time.

Most medium sized and larger urban centers have a homeless situation. Conflict theory stipulates that there will always be a disparity between those who are the beneficiaries of a social system and those who are not: the haves and the have nots.

Do homeless people have rights? What is to be done about areas where homeless set themselves up. Does it matter if the property is public or private? What about sanitation and accountability for damages. Public health concerns, graffiti and personal security are all issues which tangled up in this dilemma.

A space of one's own

Behind a busy hotel
Behind a busy hotel

In Bakersfield, without a home

In January, 2020, the Kern County Homeless Collaborative will be out, counting the number of people who are sleeping on the streets or living in their cars. Every year, the group recruits volunteers to document the number of people who are considered homeless. Their main concerns are to count those who are living out there and to get an idea of how many people have access to shelters of some sort.

A count in 2019 indicated that the numbers rose nearly fifty percent from the previous year with 855 of them being out doors. The statistics may seem high, and even one homeless person in a society as affluent as ours is one too many. There are many however who are either invisible because they choose to be, or were overlooked by the count.

Little Urban Camps

Click thumbnail to view full-size
an open field
an open field
an open field

A city and a vision

The city has worked on various solutions to help address the situation involving the homeless. When I spoke with Charmaine, a woman who resides in a camp off Ming Avenue, near the mall, she says that "most people don't understand. Not all of us are thieves or bad." She indicated that sometimes people will leave a mess in a park or on the street in order to retaliate. This is because of the abuse many in the community suffer which can include "hard looks" or "being run over by a car".

Todd on the other hand - a man who I talked to off of California Avenue - says that there are a lot of indecent folks out there. "All these guys are thieves and liars. Everyone of them is on some kind of drug."

Whether it can be attributed to a substance abuse concern, mental health or unsanitary practices is up for debate. However, these attributes inspire many people to adopt a not in my neighborhood attitude.

This seems to be one of the barriers that is stopping the shelter that is proposed for the city's east-side.

Robyn. November 2019

Not for me

According to an article in the Bakersfield Californian, the representative of the district which the shelter is proposed for thought the idea was inappropriate for his area. It was not only expensive, but would bring out other problems. "Councilman Willie Rivera came out strongly against the shelter, which is in his ward. He said he was concerned about the costs, and with saddling, “southeast Bakersfield with a shelter that will never close.”

The structure was said to be priced at over $1.5 million which seems a phenomenal sum. Also, the location, in the city's East side, is a bit remote. Accessibility would be limited and a homeless ghetto would probably be the result.

Tents in the City

An urban dweller has found shelter in the recesses of an overpass
An urban dweller has found shelter in the recesses of an overpass

The city would pay $3.8 million for 7.5 acres of property, along with $1.1 million for 10 acres of vacant property adjacent to the site. The city predicts the site would cost $1.9 million to construct.

The site is meant to be a temporary facility.

— Sam Morgen


Your opinion please

Should the city spend money on bulding shelters for the homeless

See results

Some shelter from the storms

A "room{ with a view
A "room{ with a view
Everything and the shirt on his back
Everything and the shirt on his back

So much stuff

One of the major concerns expressed by a couple of the interviewees are the need to be able to protect their property. This may include documents, medication or pets. Just about anything.

"You can only take what you can put under your bed," says Tony, a man who has been on the streets for three years. " I can't take my medication with me, that's a problem". He also says the conditions are overcrowded and are all right for some people.

City's like Los Angeles offer a bin system specifically for the homeless population so that they may secure their belongings.

Those belongings that homeless people carry or wheel in are stored in donated, 60-gallon City of Los Angeles recycling bins, just like the ones Angelinos leave curbside on trash pickup day. At The Bin, one container issued per person. People can stop whatever they want in them as long as its not drugs, firearms or illegal material

— Saul Gonzalez, KCRW, Los Angeles

Some people choose to be homlesss: Todd's story.

Therapy groups, SWANK, polite police

Charmaine explains to me that she has developed a girls group with several of the other homless women. "We get together and get a bat and beat up stuff. Old furniture things like that. Then we get together and talk and cry, put on make-up and get in touch with our femine side because we want to feel like women. Beautiful."

They call themselves SWANK - Some Women are Angry Need Kamp. When I tell her Swank is the name of a pornographic magazine and ask her if she did that as a means of empowerment, she looks at me blankly and shakes her head. "I did not know that," she says.

(I was invited to one of their gatherings and will follow up on this).

Charmaine and the others talk about the police and how sometimes they will chase them away. "Only if they're called," says one of the group I talked to. Usually they are pretty understanding and only act when someone complains. "They've been cool lately," says another. "Sometimes not, but they are usually understanding".

This conflicts with the perception I had of police being the aggressors and inviting bulldozers to tear down the camps. The portrayals in the media aren't very helpful at creating a pleasant image of law enforcement either. I guess in the end, the police are human and don't want to see others suffer. They are there, to serve and protect.

Behind restaurant walls

Freeways, cars, and traffic lights

As I pull up to the collapsed tent in front of the small bungalow like structure, by the hotel, I look across the street.

A car pulls up and a woman steps out and carries a white, Styrofoam box to the man with his dog. The man takes the package and nods and smiles. The woman steps into her car and drives off.

Immediately the man sets the white box down and his dog approaches it. The box moves under the muzzleand the head is moving back and forth very quickly. Even from across the street I can see the dog, almost jumping, while the man stares at the street, indifferent.

Nearby, the 99 roars with the sound of motor vehicles. Occasionally a cycle interrupts the smooth rhythm. The lights at the corner of California Street and Real Avenue switch and traffic halts. Real is monosyllabic and pronounced just as you read it and not with an emphasis on each syllable as I had anticipated when I first arrived in Bakersfield three years ago.

I decide to go over to the man because he seems inviting. I admit I have reservations about the dog because it is large and brown and seems to be of the pit bull persuasion.

When I drive over to him I am careful to step around to where he can see me, although I sense he saw me coming from across the street. I see the dog is finishing up some fries and there is an unopened container of white ranch dressing and a black fork on top of the potatoes.

I wonder for a minute if there was a sandwich involved or some sort of steak or chicken. The dog appeared to enjoy the meal.

I wonder for a minute why the man passed the food onto his dog. Is he afraid of being poisoned? Why then, would he let his dog enjoy a meal when he could have it instead?

He did the same thing with me once, I brought him a chicken fried steak and he looked down at his dog and nodded and pointed to the container.

Some people are satisfied with very little. Perhaps the trauma of losing his family to a drunk driver in 1997 was what set him over the edge towards homelessness. He lost what he cared for most.

"Every tree has provides for you" or something along those lines is what he told me.

I walk away and as I drive home, I think about my feet walking along the tree lined streets, the sun vibrating casually through the leaves and I move along the side streets of Bakersfield.

A wall and a shelter

How do you feel about the homeless

See results

Tom Waits - Freeways, Cars and Trucks

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.

© 2019 Fin


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