As the city of Auburn continues to emerge from the shadow of COVID-19, Mayor Nancy Backus told people at her annual state of the city address, three words continue to guide her hand — compassion, accountability and community.
Those words were there, Backus said at the April 19 speech at the Muckleshoot Event Center, when she expanded the city’s anti-homelessness team so it became its own department. This action increased “not only the overall budget and scope the city allocates to services and directives, but the size of the team itself,” she said.
They were there last year, she said, when she formed the city’s new office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and pledged to strengthen the city’s DEI efforts internally and externally. At one year in, Backus said, the city is beginning to hit its stride as it applies an equity lens to many internal and external projects, among them its hiring practices and new employee onboarding.
And they were there, Backus said, when she approved “a robust and substantial hiring effort at the Auburn Police Department,” which, she said, included a position focused on officer wellness, diversity and equity inclusion, “positioning us as one of the most desirable and competitive law enforcement agencies in the state.”
Backus then singled out the future Auburn Arts and Culture Center as a prominent brick-and-mortar embodiment of those words, resulting in a project that its planners designed from the ground up to be as inclusive and as open to as many residents as possible.
Backus said the center should be finished early this summer, beginning its long life as an event space and a celebration of Auburn’s diverse community
“This crucial work is becoming embedded in our service delivery, and soon, all of our residents will be able to enjoy this space together,” Backus said.
Backus then spoke to the struggle Auburn’s working parents endure trying to find meaningful and positive after-school supervision and programming for their kids.
“Every weekday, from about the time school gets out to 5 or 6 p.m., teens from across Auburn are welcomed into our Teen Center,” out of the Community’s Events Center in Les Gove Park, she said, “where they can play basketball or video games, eat snacks, go outside or just hang out and learn new skills.”
Backus lauded Auburn’s beautification efforts, which have brought to the city works like “Breathe Deep: River Moon,” a sculpture made of reclaimed, nuclear cooling fan blades near the Auburn Justice Center, and the metal crow sculpture on the site of the former Triple XXX eatery on Auburn Way South.
“None of these beautification efforts are an accident,” Backus said. “Our parks team works diligently with local artists to install and rotate sculptures and art all around town.”
That would be the same parks department, Backus continued, that year-round plans and organizes large-scale events like the Auburn Farmers Market, Petpalooza, Kids Day, the 4th of July Festival, the Santa Parade and Tree Lighting, Hops and Crops, and the Veterans Day Parade, among many others.
From there, Backus pivoted to homelessness, a problem, she said, that is not unique to Auburn, to Washington state or to the United States — but that has become a major headache for the city’s neighborhoods, its parks and wetlands, and its businesses.
In the time that has passed since the city hired Homeless Outreach Coordinator Kent Hay in April 2020, Backus said, the city has housed more than 100 people in Auburn. It has led cleanups of encampments on city property in Game Farm Park along the Green River. The city has also worked with property owners across Auburn to remove thousands of pounds of trash and connect people with housing and addiction services.
“We are making a difference here,” Backus said. “Real, actionable, defensible, humane differences every single day. Our anti-homelessness team, led by Kent Hay, is out there, day in and day out, offering housing and services to homeless people throughout the city.
“Kent is persistent and determined and doesn’t give up easily,” Backus added. “But, if after a multitude of attempts they don’t want to accept those services, our stance is simple: ‘Maybe Auburn just isn’t the place for you. We, of course, want you to be here and to be part of our community, but a community does not work without accountability.’”
Solutions won’t come quickly, Backus said, and they will not be easy because people differ and become homeless for a variety of reasons.
Backus said that the Auburn Police Department’s Community Response Team (CRT), composed of full-time officers Stephanie Bennett, Chris Mast, and Aaron Williams, works alongside Hay’s group every day to build relationships with people on both sides of the issue.
Every Tuesday, the CRT works with the Salvation Army’s Street Level Team, composed of two Outreach Community Engagement Specialists who provide personal supplies and resources to people living in their vehicles. The team also helps people by finding appropriate and affordable local housing options. In 2022, the Salvation Army housed more than 100 people within the city limits through their weekly outreach with CRT.
The Auburn Police Department bike unit, its Special Investigations Unit, its CRT and the city’s Anti- Homelessness Outreach Team have also been participating in a “downtown emphasis” since August 2022, Backus said, adding that each morning and early evening, members make contacts with homeless people in the downtown area.
The Auburn Community Resource Center on Auburn Way North, Backus said, houses many resources, including the We Care Daily Clinics, Orion Industries, the King County Library System, Seattle-King County Public Health, The Sundown Overnight Shelter and the Ray of Hope Day Center, just to name a few. It is also home to Auburn’s Community Court, which began in 2021 as an alternative, problem-solving court for some non-violent misdemeanor cases.
One of the tasks community court participants are required to complete is community service, which includes working with Auburn’s Maintenance and Operations Community Service facilitators to pick up roadside trash.
Backus likewise touted the city’s response to the nationwide movement that followed in the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020, which was to form a Police Advisory Committee (PAC). Today, in partnership with the police department, she said, the PAC develops policies and strategies to facilitate stronger, effective and equitable community policing, Backus said.
The PAC is composed of more than 25 members from all walks of life, with representation from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, Eastern European residents, the business community, the Black community, faith-based organizations, the LGBTQIA+ community, each of the six patrol districts and more.
“And as I look ahead to the future,” Backus concluded, “I know that there will be more challenges and obstacles to overcome. I’d be a fool not to recognize that. My job is to be mindful of not just the fiscal bottom line, but the social bottom line as well. I’m confident that with young people like our Junior City Council, and by staying true to our values of compassion, accountability and community, we can continue to make Auburn a place that we are all proud to call home for years and years to come.”