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Tuesday, Feb 18 2014 12:53 PM

Survey finds increase in homeless children but overall drop in homelessness

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BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer tdouglas@bakersfield.com

The number of homeless children in emergency shelters and transitional housing rose by more than one-third since last year, but the total of homeless people in metropolitan Bakersfield dropped by 37 percent, according to a yearly homeless survey released Tuesday.

The federally required survey, known as the Point-in-Time Count, was done by Kern County Homeless Collaborative members during a 24-hour period from Jan. 22 through Jan. 23.

It identified 160 children in emergency shelters or transitional housing compared with 120 last year.

Elsewhere in the survey, however, the numbers of homeless universally declined, with southeast Bakersfield showing the most dramatic improvement.

The survey results were presented to the collaborative's steering committee at its regular meeting.

In southeast Bakersfield homeless numbers dropped from 189 in 2013 to 57 this year -- a marked difference from previous years when large numbers of homeless gravitated to Martin Luther King Jr. Park in the southeast.

Metropolitan Bakersfield, which includes surrounding county areas, also saw positive changes.

The number of homeless in metropolitan Bakersfield dropped by 37 percent compared to last year's count, from 486 to 306.

Kim Albers, executive director of Flood Bakersfield Ministries, who presented the statistics, attributed the rise in homeless children to more families with children in area shelters.

"It looked like the Bakersfield Homeless Center had some very large families, eight to 10 children. It breaks my heart," Albers told the steering committee Tuesday. "I can't imagine how you get a family with 10 children out of a shelter."

Carolann Wooton, external affairs manager at Bakersfield Homeless Center, couldn't pinpoint a reason why more children might be homeless this year.

"I don't have any one reason why because there's a lot of reasons why someone would end up here," Wooton said, noting that the Center's 174 beds often have been filled to capacity since the November cold snap.

Committee Chairman Jim Wheeler pointed out that of the 40 additional children counted this year, 18 were members of two families at Bakersfield Homeless Center.

In central Bakersfield, survey takers identified 76 homeless people. It was the area with the highest concentration of homeless, followed by Oildale with 71, southeast Bakersfield with 57, Delano with 37 and the northeast with 31.

Of the homeless surveyed, 60 percent informed their interviewer they had a substance abuse issue, with alcohol and methamphetamine "rating highest as the drugs of choice," according to a press release on the count.

The survey showed the length of time people spent homeless dropped again -- not the dramatic decline from 39 to 27 months seen from 2012 to 2013, but a more modest decrease to 24 months.

Wheeler applauded the results, saying the survey shows the Bakersfield area, like municipalities nationwide, is making strides toward reducing homelessness.

"I know that last year we sort of looked at the numbers a little skeptically," Wheeler told the committee. "I think we should be able to celebrate what's going on and keep going so that we can get it even lower."

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