‘Whatever it takes’ — Dispatches from the City of Auburn anti-homelessness team

City of Auburn
6 min readOct 25, 2022
Matt Landis (right) talks with an unhoused man in a wheelchair at Brannan Park who has agreed to accept services offered.

Life out here is difficult. It’s chaos, movement, confusion, loneliness, danger, brutality, gloom and constancy. When there is no home, nowhere is.

It’s paradoxically nobody’s first choice, and yet, the battle to get the unhoused housed and connected with services is fraught and ongoing across King County and South Puget Sound. It’s a minute-by-minute struggle filled with myriad outreach coordinators, police officers, service providers and more dedicating every working hour to help — those on the fringes find stability, and to help the community of Auburn feel safe and secure.

Perhaps nobody at the City of Auburn knows that better than Kent Hay and Matt Landis, members of a two-person team called the Anti-Homelessness Outreach Program. Their office is in City Hall just a few doors down from Mayor Nancy Backus’. That’s intentional as in 2015 — just a year into her first term — Mayor Backus created a task force on homelessness to address a problem that was already well underway.

But their office is really outside.

“We’ll do whatever it takes to get someone help,” says Matt as he drives to a one-person tent flanked by sticker bushes and train tracks. “They do 2% and we’ll do 98%. We just want to get them help.”

Matt drives a city-owned pick-up truck equipped with emergency lights and a spotlight. Behind the driver’s seat is an emergency kitwith naloxone, a medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose.

Every day, from about 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., the routine of Kent and Matt is like clockwork. It starts downtown, moves outward toward the outskirts, around and back again. As they drive the streets, their eyes are scanning for people they know and some they don’t. The side of the road, the sidewalks, sometimes the bushes. Some clients you can reach easily thanks to the advancements of modern technology. But batteries die and so do phones. So you drive and you look.

On a Monday in early October, the day starts like most others — in the seat of a pickup truck.

Today, Matt’s searching for a few specific people. One is a retired military veteran living on his own in a small makeshift shack a few feet away from train tracks. The Outlet Collection Seattle mall and a Qdoba are across the street, where he sometimes charges his phone.

But the man in crisis isn’t answering, and that’s particularly worrisome because of his medical diagnosis: ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, a terminal neurological degeneration that always leads to complete muscular atrophy.

As Matt approaches, he makes sure to call out several times. He knocks, he waits, and then takes a small peak inside.

Matt checks the tent of a man who is living near the Outlet Collection Seattle, flanked by thick brush and train tracks.

“Nobody’s here,” he says.

What’s important to understand, Matt says, is that constant communication and contact is most important. Technically, the man living in the tent is breaking the law by camping on private property, but jails won’t take him. His advanced condition means they don’t have the resources necessary to keep him there. And hospitals can’t either — if someone denies medical care, it’s their right. He’s also declined to go to a shelter.

So when he chooses to sleep outside, who’s to stop him? It’s a complicated problem and solutions aren’t immediate. They take time and effort.

“Onto the next one,” Matt says, hopping into the pickup. We’re headed to an encampment at Brannan Park. A group of people was trespassed earlier that morning. All but one agreed to accept the services offered.

One of the most common and continuous complaints City of Auburn employees receive is predictable: drugs, crime, homelessness, or all three. They’re not always connected, but sometimes they are.

The “problem” of homelessness is endlessly complicated. Solutions aren’t easy and almost always require seemingly endless amounts of effort, coordinated by dozens of agencies, including the private sector, nonprofits, police, courts, and lawyers.

A man at a camp on county property along Green River glares at the camera.

In Auburn, for instance, Matt and Kent might see the same person three times a week at a camp. But this particular camp in this example might be on private property. And the property owner isn’t concerned at the moment about clearing the area. So as government officials, they can offer services, and they do, but if the person doesn’t want to take them, that’s a personal choice devoid of force.

In another part of town, a camp might exist just outside of city limits. Again, as city employees, there’s not much to be done. It’s King County land so it’s King County’s call.

Then there are the camps on city property. Auburn has for years had laws against camping on public land. And in 2018, the city council passed a drug ordinance that allows courts to issue orders banning users from anti-drug emphasis areas, such as parks and schools.

This month, the council expanded those areas and increased penalties for people who violate the orders. Several other cities in King County had similar local ordinances, spurred by the February 2021 Washington Supreme Court decision that ruled people can no longer be arrested for simple drug possession.

Kent and Matt serve trespass notices such as this, often to people camping on city-owned property.

Several in the community will rightfully question why, then, there are still camps on city-owned property like parks and under bridges.

It’s because even with some laws available as a resource, housing people takes time. There are a limited number of units and the process is winding and complex. So while someone is waiting for something affordable to open up, some may choose shelters but others may not. There are many reasons — the risk of theft, mental illness, drug use, issues getting along with others in the shelter, and so on and so on.

Some may get arrested. And when they’re released, there’s still no home waiting for them.

Kent Hay has a “tough love” approach to outreach and he knows it’s not for everyone. He has plenty of critics. And plenty of supporters — outside, he knows everyone on a first-name basis. And they know him. And they trust him.

Since he started at the City of Auburn in April 2020, he’s spearheaded a philosophy that permeates. He starts each interaction with clients by offering services — housing, bus passes, cash assistance, help with getting an ID or driver’s license, and more. If they don’t accept the services or refuse, then they probably don’t belong in the Auburn community, he says. Which is when the trespassing notices are served.

Kent Hay talks with a group of unhoused people at Brannan Park.

“A good relationship isn’t one-sided,” Kent says on a chilly Tuesday morning. “If it’s always take, take, take and never give, that doesn’t work. That’s not a relationship.”

To date, he and Matt have successfully housed over 55 clients, with more on the way. They track the names on a giant whiteboard in their City Hall office.

Matt at a camp along Green River. Across the waterway, the sound of gunfire can sometimes be heard.

“It’s tough,” Matt says, when asked if it feels like the work he’s doing is akin to Sisyphus — a Greek king punished by Zeus, forced to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity. Every time he gets to the top, it rolls back down.

“It’s tough but we’ll never stop.”