Police, United Way have some ideas they're working on

Taft's Homeless/Vagrancy Committee held its first meeting last week to get organized and updated on the efforts already underway by Taft Police to deal with some of the issues.

The Committee also got an intriguing update from a homeless outreach worker with the United Way in Bakersfield.

The Committee was started a month ago by the Taft City Council and includes councilmembers Josh Bryan and Renee Hill, Planning Commissioner Susan banner and Ron Orrin, Chief of Police Damon McMinn, City Manager Craig Jones and Planing and Community Development Director Mark Staples.

Hill said one goal of the committee will be to come up with a consensus over how to effectively and humanely deal with the homeless and vagrants out on the streets and the problems that come with them.

"Right now we have a town full of haters and huggers and we need to unite them," she said, calling Taft "a town divided."

"What's happening to our town is more that just a homeless problem."

McMinn gave a quick outline of what police have determined about the issues, followed by a tailed report from Sgt. Corey Beilby, who is the department's liaison to the homeless collaborative that meets quarterly here in Taft.

It also heard from United Way Homelessness Projects Manager Jessica Janssen.

Both McMinn and Beilby, who has completed a list of the "unsheltered homeless" and stays in contact with them through his patrol duties reiterated what has been said before by law enforcement and homeless outreach workers, both here in Taft and those from Bakersfield who come to Taft regularly.

Drugs and especially mental health issues are the big problems in the homeless community.

Balancing the constitutional rights of the homeless with the lack of shelters and restrooms is another big issue.
The problem of the restrooms that leads to human waste in some areas is a sticky one.
The City closes all of its public restrooms from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. because of problems with vandalism, soiling the restrooms and contaminated needles being left inside.
Beilby said he's even gone so far as to take people to the police station to use the restrooms and told them they can use the one in the lobby at the station, but its located on Commerce Way, too far to walk for the homeless who congregate in and around downtown.

Moreover, Beilby said, courts have held that it violates the homeless' Constitutional rights if they don't have access to restrooms.

Beilby and McMinn said they are exploring a pilot program to keep restrooms open on a limited basis even with the problems in the past.
It won't be easy.

"We are going to jump through hoops and we are going to go through some rough spots," he said.

But something has to be done.

"The current status quo isn't working," he said.

Janssen added an approach that, while it sounds expensive, is more cost effective than temporary shelters:

getting homes for the homeless.

"Our emergency shelters are overflowing," he said, and they are not cost efficient.
Housing for homeless is cheaper, about $28,000 per year, and has been shown to improve mental health and the progress people make getting off the streets.
But Beilby pointed out that it involves getting a handle on drug addiction and alcoholism first.