Ranked as the 9th largest city in California and the 52nd in the nation by population, the 140 square mile community is embraced by the sometimes snow capped Tehachapi mountains. The busy urban streets fade quickly into farmlands, where much of the world's produce is grown.
A rather nondescript city, the residents, like most are hardworking people who care about their neighborhoods, raise families, elect public officials and pursue their dreams.
Like any other place where people live, Bakersfield has its share of problems. There is a criminal element, much of it fueled by problems related to substance abuse. There are social problems related to various sorts of trauma: child abuse, domestic violence, addictions with various names.
And of course, homelessness is a problem. Kern County, in which Bakersfield is located, experienced a nine percent rise in the homeless population according to a report released by the Kern County Homeless Collaborative. The number counted—throughout the county—was about 885.
However, that figure seems a bit low...
I pull off the freeway off ramp and follow the road as it curves. Businesses start to fade into empty lots as I near the train tracks and prepare to make a left hand turn. I wait at the stop sign while the driver navigates her cellular phone then looks up annoyed at me and accelerates.
As I turn the corner, something catches my eye.
I check my review mirror and pull over slightly to the right. The train tracks are about five feet from my passenger door. I am far enough off the roadside to avoid any hazards. I look up at the overpass awning.
There are a series of tents tucked into the corner, the way the Anasazi used the recesses of cliffs. This is no accident, and for a moment, I am taken away by the architecture of the makeshift dwelling. It's safe, secure, probably away from the elements, and perhaps comfortable.
The temperatures under the freeway where I am standing are much warmer than open air in the nearby fields. I am certain that in the summer, there would be a cooling effect as well.
Pressures and Stresses
As I look up, I am greeted by a group of about four people. They look young, two male and two female. I call out to them.
"I'm a student. Would you like to talk?"
"What do you want?", says one.
"No. We don't want any," says another.
"I just want to hear your story."
"Go away," says one. "Come back some other time."
As I start to move toward my car, I see a figure running quickly down the hill. I'm a little bit nervous because I always exercise on the side of caution. However, I also believe that people are ultimately more good than they are evil.
The golden rule, most people are familiar with it. Many adhere to it. Besides, if they had really wanted to do me harm, there are plenty of projectiles which could have easily been tossed in my direction, with little effort.
The man who approaches me is a bit younger than I am. Probably in his late twenties or early thirties. He looks like he has a place to clean up. He is recently shaven, but still maintains a small mustache. He looks like he has showered.
"It can happen to anyone", he says. "It can happen to you."
"What is your story?" I ask.
"They came and took the house away because she was supposed to be paying the bills. And things happen. My friend says that he was drunk and he didn't mean for it to go down like that with her. I was hurt by it like that. What can you do. The bills. And the mental stress. You can't go back with things."
He tells me the story of his eviction and how the officers approached him and that he knew of others that have been displaced from their homes under similar conditions.
"I know it is his job, but he could have done it different. Given me time. First he says ninety days, then he says thirty and then two weeks. I am sad and stressed."
"There was an event that happened that caused you turmoil." I try to show empathy.
"He does it like that to people all the time," the man says. "And I have stresses and mental pain from it."
Trafficking? One Woman's Story
- Bunny's Story: Trauma and a Young Woman's Shattered Life
Bunny lives in a hotel in California's Central Valley. Her story is one of abuse and turmoil. A young woman devastated by drugs who survivals doing what she must. The lives of childhood victims are not pleasant ones. She became a foster child an
Trauma is often an influence on later experiences
Stories from the Front
One of the issues that the homeless have to deal with are anti-vagrancy laws which are designed to discourage loitering. Even though many places are public - like parks for example - there are set hours. This is to discourage those who wish to stay overnight. Much of the reasoning behind this makes sense. Safety and cleanliness are important to maintain in places that are often frequented by families or adults who are seeking afternoon leisure.
However, many of the homeless have spoken about facing punitive measures - tickets and fines - which they are unable to pay. And often failure to amend sanctions will lead to additional fees or even incarceration. Therefore, many people who are homeless will end up in jails because they are unable to answer fully in a court of law.
In a sense, they are being punished for their lifestyle, their state of being.
For being homeless.
Here is one young woman's story:
Oildale. Corruption? Politics? Life.
- The Mean Streets of Oildale
Hyacinth has lived in the Bakersfield suburb of Oildale since the late 1990's. Upon her arrival, she managed to find an office job. After relapsing, her life took a turn and she found herself in turmoil. She shares her true story and some of the u
So much sadness in the city
As I move around the city, I realize that the homeless become more visible, once you choose to notice them.
Many are sitting against buildings or walls along the roadside. Others have shopping carts filled to the brim with various objects. Some have pets.
The bus depot of off Chester Avenue seems to be a popular congregation spot. Sometimes it is difficult to tell those who are homeless from those who are not. However, if you look closely, you will see a fatigue that seems to permeate their aura. Their clothes are clean, but covered with a heavy invisible film. Some may have cell phones, but in today's day and age, with new government regulations, everyone is guaranteed access to a telephone.
It's the American way.
Many of them I am afraid to approach, because how exactly do you go up to someone in public and say, "Excuse me, but are you homeless?"
One of the things I have noticed though, is that many of the more resilient ones tend to leave the city, and seek out their own shelter on the dark outskirts of the metropolis. On the same hand, many of those who remain in the city streets seem to be those who may be dealing with psychological issues or substance abuse.
Whether it is the environment that affects this or whether it is the fact that those who are stronger, learn self-sufficiency resembles the old nature vs. nurture debate. Once one has their basic needs met, they are able to develop the higher - more human - endeavors such as self-actualization..
Here is another story.
The man says he had a college degree - an English major - on an athletic scholarship. He was also a veteran whose records were "lost" and then "found" by the government.
He talks of the encampments that are often taken down, but seems to recognize that one needs priorities. Material objects are unimportant. And sometimes you have to learn to let go.
The Kern River stretches 164 miles from the Sequoia National Forest and slips through the city of Bakersfield, separating the main hub from Oildale. When it is active in the city, it rages under the Chester Avenue bridge full force.
Now, it is mostly empty, and dry. Sand dunes run along the empty bed and vegetation grows tall and wild. Clam shells, shopping carts, and egrets. At times, it almost smells like the sea.
Had you landed here, from another planet, in this one spot, you might think this place uninhabited. However, if you take a few steps and look around, you will see evidence of human life.
Trust Your Government
When I made my first trek through here, I was stopped by a man who asked if I was with the government.
"Are you with FEMA?" he asked, almost yelling.
"No, we are students," I said. I nodded to the group of people I was with.
"You look like you are researchers studying something. Like the government."
And today when I came through here in the morning, a man stopped me.
"The government comes though here sometimes. I don't like it. Most people don't trust them. FEMA doing something."
"You've seen them?" I ask, wanting to know more.
"No. They came here from the census, but a lot of people didn't talk to them. They don't know what they are really up to."
"How many people are here?", I ask.
He pauses and looks down. Places the back of his palm to his chin and looks up at me directly. "Hundreds. Hundreds. A lot of people, there are many of us here." He becomes quiet, looks down the length of the river.
"Hundreds," he says.
I think for a minute about the figure the coalition arrived at concerning the number in the entire county. I suspect that along this empty riverbed, there are probably more than the 800 or so, alone.
I walk along the edge of the bank and pass encampment after encampment. Some of the dwellings are quite complex, while others seem to be areas that are forged into the tall grasses, some look like they were recently abandoned.
I call out occasionally partially out of courtesy, but also because I don't want to startle anyone who might mistake me for an intruder. I am after all, almost going into a foreign country without a passport. I realize that some of the people I might encounter don't like surprises.
Sometimes someone answers me and we chatter a bit.
"Hello. Would you like to talk?" I ask one man, who peaks up at me through his tent.
"No. Not right now, I am relaxing. Maybe later though," he says.
Sometimes people aren't as polite. But I have to remind myself that I am going into their neighborhood. I am walking through their yards.
"Get the fuck away from here!" says one woman. Perhaps afraid because I am male. I can imagine some of the concerns female homeless must deal with
I decide to take a stroll down towards the center of the empty riverbed. I try to picture it with the water coming through and wonder where the residents go then. I look around me and realize that I am almost invisible. No one knows where I am, including myself.
I can no longer see the top of the bank and I suspect that no one can see me.
The Dusk at the End of the Horizon
The sun is starting to set now and the sky is more dim. I can see the mountain ranges in the backdrop, at the end of the horizon, at the end of the world
Right now some are covered with snow. The image is peaceful and a stark contrast to the flurry of shanties buried against the dirt walls and dead trees around me.
A man is hammering something under a canopy ahead of me. I am afraid to call out to him because I know he isn't here camping. He looks up at me out of his peripheral but doesn't pause.
The sun has started to lower a bit more. I feel a chill come over me that is from the partially from the weather.
The grass to my side, starts to shiver, and then I see a cat dart out and run back along the dry river behind me.
The ground is covered with shells like the sea.
I walk now into the middle of the riverbed, the banks on either side of me are invisible because of the tall grasses.
I hear the bridge and the cars on it ripple past, but sound far away. Soon these noises fade as I walk further along.
The sun strains through the clouds near the horizon and I wonder what the light was like back at the beginning of the world and what the fade would resemble when the world ends.
© 2019 Finn