Bakersfield provides blueprint for ending chronic homelessness

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. -- Extreme poverty and homelessness have long been community challenges, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, finding solutions became more difficult.

But in spite of everything in 2020, Bakersfield in Kern County managed to achieve "functional zero" for chronic homelessness, defined as homeless for more than a year or repeatedly over three years.

"Now we're at a point where if somebody becomes known to us and they meet this definition, we're able to essentially house them within one month," said Anna Laven, executive director of the Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homeless Collaborative.

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"Functional zero" means fewer than three people experiencing chronic homelessness at any given time. Getting there was a five-year project led by Built for Zero, but staying there during a pandemic showed the program's effectiveness.

"I think it's a testament to what building your system, using real time data, strategizing, doing small test of change can lead to," said Beth Sandor, co-director of Built for Zero.

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Bakersfield uses an increasingly popular approach called a "by-name" list, which tracks every individual experiencing homelessness in the area, with details about their situation and needs.

"Treating someone who is experiencing homelessness like the human being that they are, and providing them with a sense of dignity and hope about their future makes all the difference," said Laven.

Agencies, nonprofits and shelters work together to help all of the individuals on the list, but also pioneered what's called case conferences, where managers meet weekly to talk about 15 people who need help that week.

"We've seen that be essential not only in Bakersfield but across the communities that are getting to zero," Sandor said. "We see that case conferencing function as essential."

But what might be the most critical relationship built is with area landlords, so they will rent to people who are homeless. Many were reluctant in the past, even with the guarantee of voucher payments from the government.

"You can put together all the case management and all the wonderful data in the world, but if you don't have a place ultimately to house folks, you won't get very far," Laven said.

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Data, relationships and coordination have proven to be a solution for Bakersfield, but the infrastructure now in place has provided an ability to adapt and meet the ever changing needs of the homeless moving forward.

"Being able to demonstrate as Bakersfield did that they can respond to that dynamic problem is a really important piece of explaining to the public what it takes to end and maintain an end to homelessness," Sandor said.
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