The Shafter Press - Serving the community since 1922

By David Couch
Kern County Supervisor 

Couch's Corner - April 23, 2020

Bridge housing for homeless women works


April 23, 2020 | View PDF

Lost amid the COVID-19 news is a recent accomplishment for which the communities of Lamont and Weedpatch should be proud. The Sunset Labor Camp Bridge Housing Program that was set up by the Housing Authority of Kern County last fall as a temporary shelter for unaccompanied homeless women closed recently.

But that is not the story that brings pride.

The story of that temporary program, its accomplishments and the Lamont/Weedpatch community that embraced them is a story that needs to be told. People unfamiliar with those communities may not know them as I have come to know them. They have a huge heart, they take care of each other and others, without question. When the idea of a temporary “bridge housing program” was introduced by KernHA to help with the community’s homeless crisis, they stood tall, recognized their own roots as a community and welcomed these people with open arms.

As a reminder, last fall KernHA, which manages temporary labor camp dwellings in Lamont and north of Shafter, proposed using these facilities as temporary housing for unaccompanied homeless women, some with children, who were pretty far along in actually getting their own housing vouchers. This was a temporary arrangement, with the facilities reverting to their use as temporary labor camp for migrant farmworkers through the ag season.

The Lamont/Weedpatch community stepped up and acknowledged that being displaced was a part of their history. (The Sunset Labor Camp was the actual labor camp referenced by John Steinbeck in [BEGIN ITAL]The Grapes of Wrath.[END ITAL) In particular, the Lamont Chamber of Commerce expressed its support and understanding of this initiative. Without this support, the initiative may have never happened.

The program was a huge success. Consider this: Out of the 32 homeless women and 15 children who were moved into the Sunset Camp, 26 of the women and all 15 of the children were placed into housing by the time the program ended on March 31. The other 6 returned to the homeless shelter in Bakersfield.

This is an amazing success rate, and an amazing story, where these women and their children who just needed a temporary place to call home were welcomed by a community and allowed to get back on their feet. The women should be proud, KernHA should be proud, but also, the Lamont Chamber of Commerce and the communities of Lamont and Weedpatch should be proud.

The community supported this effort in more ways than by just letting them in. Church groups donated new clothes, and all the participants received Christmas stockings with a variety of gifts for adults and children.

I was happy to host a Valentine’s Day event for the ladies and their children, with cupcakes and balloons and a moment of time when we could talk and see how they were doing.

As transportation was provided for these ladies to get their business done, there was no increase of homeless foot traffic in the community, nor were there any incidents that affected the community. While there were no negative consequences, there were positive benefits to the community. A few new jobs and some local shopping activity helped the local economies. By supporting the effort, the community benefitted.

I especially want to thank a few people and organizations that supported this and made it work. Thank you, Marina Ugues, facility manager, for making this place feel like home for the ladies who lived there. Thanks to Heather Kimmel and Stephen Pelz, both from KernHA, and their staff, for turning this idea into a huge success. Finally, thanks to the Lamont Chamber of Commerce who so willingly accepted this concept and helped make it a reality. Thank you for your vision and your hospitality.

Much of Kern County’s history is owed to those first homeless people who came through the Sunset Labor Camp and for those that followed, as told in Steinbeck’s novel. It seems so fitting that the Sunset Labor Camp is still being used for that purpose. Thanks again to all who helped make it happen.

If you have any questions about this or any matter relating to District 4, feel free to ask us at [email protected] or call us at 661-868-3680.

David Couch is county supervisor for District 4, which includes the Shafter and Wasco areas. The opinions expressed in this column are his own, and not necessarily those of the papers or their management.


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