Kent Hay is Auburn’s Homeless Outreach Coordinator, but that title doesn’t adequately describe the work he does.
Hay does whatever needs to be done to house homeless people in Auburn. If that means walking into the woods to bring someone their mail, Hay does it. If that means carrying a folding table to a camp to sign people up for housing vouchers, Hay does it.
“I am the phone, I am the computer. I have my backpack with a police radio, computer and a WiFi hot spot. I do all my work outside. I have a table and a chair I set up and do my work,” Hay said. “I’m an agency by myself.”
On Aug. 27, Hay went to a few encampments to drop off mail and talk to the residents about services the city offers.
“My whole day is going out to the shelter or to the encampments, or the RVs, or to anyone who’s homeless or on the verge of being homeless, signing people up for benefits, getting people to medical appointments and that type of stuff,” Hay said.
The people you see sleeping under bridges and asking for spare change on the side of the road all have names, and there’s a good chance Hay knows them. He’s worked as the outreach coordinator for a little over a year and a half. In that time, he. has housed about 30 people.
Auburn estimates there are around 350 people living unsheltered in the community. In the grand scheme of things, housing 30 people might not seem like a lot, but it’s not as easy as simply giving them a room, Hay said.
Stopped at a red light on the way to the encampment, Hay rolled down his window to talk to a man named Fred who was panhandling. Hay talked with Fred about coming into the service center on Thursday to sign him up for Health Through Housing.
A lot of people have housing vouchers through Catholic Community Services, which pays $1,000 a month for rent. But the housing voucher alone isn’t enough to get people inside, Hay said.
“In the south side all the low incomes are full and the low income studios are around $1,200-$1,300,” Hay said. “So your $1,000 has to cover utilities and rent. It’s really difficult to find a place where people want to stay.”
For people who have been homeless for years, living outside is normal and comfortable, but living inside isn’t — so simply putting someone in a room isn’t enough, Hay said.
“To a lot of people, a bed is not comfortable when you’re sleeping outside all the time,” Hay said. “That’s why when you put people inside, they open up the windows and make it cold like it’s outside because they’re not comfortable. People think if you just build a spot, people will go inside, and that’s just not true.”
Housing and accountability
With King County’s purchase of the former Clarion Inn in Auburn for the Health Through Housing program, Hay has been working to get everyone in Auburn signed up so they have that opportunity, he said. Hay and Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus are working with the county to make sure Auburn people are prioritized for rooms in the hotel.
There are other challenges beyond adjusting to a new way of living for housing unhoused people, Hay said. For instance, a lot of the time, unhoused people who don’t use drugs don’t want to be around folks who are using drugs. So putting users and non-users in the same building might cause the non-users to leave, Hay said.
At around 2:15 p.m., Hay parked his car next to a wooded area in rural Auburn. He grabbed his backpack and set out on a trail to an encampment.
The encampment Hay was visiting is fairly remote and secluded. It’s about a five-minute walk from the road. He’s the only service provider who actually makes trips out there to get people connected with the city’s services.
“Just because people aren’t seen doesn’t mean they don’t need help. If you treat people like they’re invisible, they’ll act like they’re invisible and they miss a lot of opportunities,” Hay said.
The encampment Hay visited was organized like a campsite at a national forest: about a dozen tents were spaced out under the trees, and pathways snaked around to the different sites. Some people made wooden fences around their homes.
Most of the people who live there were gone that day, including the woman Hay had mail for, Amy, who was at work. Hay left the mail with one of Amy’s neighbors before heading out.
Accountability is one of the principles that guides Hay’s work. He doesn’t do charity. He holds people accountable and expects them to participate in society in order to get the things they want.
“I don’t come out and give blankets and tents and food. When I first started this job, that’s what people expected. They’re used to people giving them stuff, not help, just stuff,” Hay said. “I said I don’t do that. I can help you get out of this situation. And that’s when our relationship changed.”
Hay said the new police reform laws have made it more difficult to hold people accountable. The city’s new law against camping is intended to make it clear for folks living outside: you can’t continue to live outside, but the city will help you find housing. The police reform laws make it hard for police to enforce that rule, Hay said.
Hay worries that when the Health Through Housing hotel opens, police won’t be able to remove disruptive residents from the hotel, making it harder for everyone else to live in peace. Hay also thinks that housing people who aren’t making a concerted effort to engage in society isn’t fair to the folks he works with who are making that effort.
After working with unhoused people for years, Hay understands it better than most housed people. One misconception housed people have about unhoused people is that they’re all dangerous or that they should be feared, Hay said.
“I come out here by myself. I don’t bring the police. I don’t know how to be scared of people,” Hay said. “The sad part is that if you ask the people out here, they don’t see anybody but me, but there’s a lot of agencies that say they’re ‘out here helping people.’ But where are they?”
The people at the camp Hay visited are trying to figure a way out of their situation, but don’t know where to start. A lot of them have jobs, but finding affordable housing with transportation to work is a challenge, Hay said.
People often assume using hard drugs like meth or heroin is what leads them to become unhoused, and sometimes that is the case, but Hay said there’s a litany of reasons people become homeless.
“There’s a whole bunch of different reasons — evictions, relationships broke down, families broke down, drugs and alcohol, mental health, domestic violence. You name it, that’s why people are out here,” Hay said.
Another misconception Hay noticed among the housed is the idea that if they just leave unhoused people alone, they’ll figure it out.
“I ask people ‘if we just left you alone would you figure it out?’ And they say no, we wouldn’t figure it out, and so that’s the frustration. These people don’t know where to start,” Hay said. “They don’t know who to call, or how to get through a phone call without saying the wrong things. A lot of these systems are not made to help you. It’s not made to be super easy.”
Hay helps them navigate through the bureaucracy in any way he can. Because he works for the city, Hay can do a lot of things nonprofits can’t, such as getting people new IDs or bringing them their mail.
Hay’s approach to outreach differs from a lot of programs. He doesn’t give people a number to call or the address of an agency to find. He meets them where they’re at and walks them through the process.
“I’m trying to take away every barrier that you have to get help,” Hay said. “So when I sit down with someone and they say they’re ready to go to methadone treatment, I put them in my car and we go down to the methadone clinic and get them signed up that day.”
Because the mayor is his supervisor, Hay has a lot of freedom in what he can do. He’s not bogged down by meeting arbitrary quotas, so he can spend as much time with an individual as needed, Hay said.
One thing is made clear by spending an afternoon with Hay: Unhoused people are not a monolith. Each person had a different set of circumstances that led to them being outside and different barriers for getting inside. Hay is steadily working through those barriers to get people back inside.