At Kent Hay’s approach, the homeless man at the base of the wall at Brannan Park last Monday morning suddenly popped out of his sleeping bag.
And when he saw the familiar face, he smiled, and the two took up the same conversation they’d had before and will no doubt have again.
“Good morning, how you doing, man?” said Hay, before reminding the man he ‘d be trespassed if Hay found him asleep in the park between dusk and dawn.
“Are you sleeping out here?”
“Just in the mornings,” said the man.
Hay asked the man when he could return to the night shelter, from which he was recently booted.
“Monday,” said the man.
“All right, so you’re not here at night. What’d they kick out you for?”
If Hay could find a way to get him back into that shelter, would that be okay? Yes, said the man, it would.
In the encampments, there are no addresses, only an intricate network of trails that wind and twist to cutouts in the foliage, with human beings in them, shivering with the cold, baking in the heat, bug bitten, subject to every danger homelessness presents, including the ever present threat of violence.
Having descended into the the foliage on the west bank of the Green River, Hay picked his way among omni-present blackberry vines bristling with sharp thorns and piles of old wine bottles, plastic soda bottles, cast-away clothing and overturned shopping carts, each heap looking depressingly like the others.
He stops at a cutout. The woman inside knows why he’s there, but she asks him for a bit more time to collect her things and move on.
“If you can give me til 10 o’clock, everything here will be in the dumpster, my brother’s coming to help me,” said the woman, out there because of a methamphetamine addiction.
All right, Hay says, it’s a deal: 10 o’clock, but if he returns and finds the woman there after that, he’ll trespass her.
“Why don’t you take me up on the help? You’ve still got a problem,” he said.
Not that day.
Like this man and woman, most of homeless people are willing to move it along with no hassles, Hay said. Indeed, since April when the city hired him to be its first Outreach Program Administrator, he’s only had to trespass one person.
In some form or other, this is how Hay starts every working day, reminding the unhoused they can’t be in city parks overnight, doing his best to point them to the shelters and to the medical, employment assistance, counseling and other services that could help them out of their situations.
But because the city doesn’t want homeless people to settle into homelessness and abandon all hope of getting out, there are no handouts.
That would be counterproductive, Hay said.
“We don’t want them to get acclimated to the system of ‘here’s shelter, here’s food, here’s the food bank, here’s the church that’s having dinner tonight,’ and this becomes their way of life,” Hay said. “I want to make people understand that I am here, and I am going to bother them until they get help.
“We always offer help, that’s where we start,” Hay added. “I tell them, ‘Let me help you, let me figure this out.’ But if they don’t want the help, we’re going to make it real difficult for them not to participate. People need to know that if I find them out here in the parks, I’ll trespass them. They can’t just come to Auburn and be homeless.”
His rounds that morning encompassed not only homeless encampments below Brannan Park and along the White River Trail, but he took time to address familiar faces at Veteran’s Memorial Park and Fulmer Field.
Hay knows who lives where, knows what their issues are.
“Our message to them is, ‘We’re offering you services, we’re offering you help, taxpayers are paying a lot of money for services and building shelters for you to sleep in, and day centers, and just because you don’t want to use them, that’s not an option,’” Hay said. .
Out here, Hay said, are homeless people with mental health problems, people who aren’t getting treatment, people who aren’t on their medications or who can’t get to their medications say in Seattle, people who can’t get in contact with their case managers.
“We could be doing better, but for some reason, the way the system works, we say ‘services first,’ but who’s providing the services when they are not where the people are at? Everybody in here wants to do better, but sometimes when you don’t have the structure and you are able to do whatever you want to do, it’s hard to stay on the path,” Hay said.
A man appeared at a bend in the trail.
“What are you doing back out here?” Hay asked.
The man, an army veteran battling drug addiction, was friendly. He, too, has met Hay, and knew perhaps that, in distinction from all people who ride in there on their white horses and promise to follow through on the help they offer, this guy has always kept his word.
“They wouldn’t help me,” the man answered, without elaborating on who ‘they’ were. “They wanted me to go to Seattle, and I don’t want to go to Seattle.”
“I can make a phone call, and maybe go a different route. I got a dude from the YWCA and I can make a phone call and he can put you in a hotel tonight,” Hay offered.
“Really?” the man asked.
As Hays walked, he talked about the Sept. 8 Auburn City Council decision to strike the criminal misdemeanor as a penalty for violating the no-overnight-camping-in parks ordinance, but to continue with the civil infractions the city has employed for years.
That decision will make the city’s goal harder to achieve, Hay said, because the possibility of getting a misdemeanor brings the offender to the attention of the court system, where he or she can take advantage of all sorts of helpful programs.
On the other hand, a civil infraction is just a fine. And how, Hays asked, will piling up fines on homeless people who cannot pay help them?
“What the council said was ‘we are penalizing homelessness.’ Here’s how I look at it. Say I write a man a $250 ticket, how’s he going to pay that? And if he doesn’t pay that, it goes into collections. Now, let’s say he’s ready to go into housing. The people who rent housing don’t care about a criminal misdemeanor for trespassing. The one thing they do care about is money, and now that’s on their permanent record.
“I think the council really got stuck on this little bitty part of the bigger picture of what help really looks like. My question is, what are we really trying to accomplish in Auburn? We are never going to end homelessness, but we can manage it better,” Hay said.