Kent Hay spends his working hours scouring the 29 square miles within Auburn’s city limits, driving down business alleyways, walking through muddy wetlands or hiking through wooded parks looking for people living in the area. It’s part of his job as the city of Auburn’s Outreach Program Administrator, where he connects the local unhoused community with resources to help them exit homelessness.
According to the city of Auburn’s website, there are around 352 people experiencing homelessness in Auburn; 40% of that population is unsheltered.
One of the tools Hay hopes will make a difference in the lives of his unhoused community is a consolidated resource center that recently opened in conjunction with a community court that opened May 27, 2021. Instead of moving through multiple locations, people can access the court, resource center, foodbank and day shelter in one place.
The city of Auburn is turning to a community court model as a diversion program to address the city’s populace who face low-level misdemeanor crimes — such as criminal trespass, disorderly conduct or theft — as an alternative to fines or jail time. People who have been convicted of violent felonies in the past five years are ineligible for community court. Municipal and district courts like Auburn’s community court oversee misdemeanor and infraction cases, while felony cases are referred to superior courts.
The push in Auburn for the change in process is to prevent more people from entering the criminal justice system by addressing underlying factors, such as lack of housing or drug addiction, that might lead someone to criminal behavior.
Currently, there are three other community courts in King County: Redmond, Shoreline and Burien, though the Burien community court is closed due to budget cuts because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s the plan?
Every Thursday, presiding Judge Matthew York will hear cases at the community court for two hours, between 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. York said that the criminal justice model has swung back and forth from a rehabilitation model to a punishment model throughout history. “This is certainly a swing toward the rehabilitation model,” York said. York says the advantage of a community court and resource center compared to a traditional court is that when he orders someone to seek help in community court, those resources are immediately at their fingertips.
“Studies have shown that when recidivism goes down, there is less money in jail costs,” York said.
According to York, if a participant does not follow through with mandated goals, such as weekly check-ins or obtaining a license, their case returns to traditional court. If a participant is successful in fulfilling the mandate, the charges are wiped clean from their record.
On June 24, Marty Higgins sat in Auburn’s resource center, waiting to walk next door for his 1:30 p.m. check-in with a judge. Higgins had been using community court for two weeks and so far had obtained an ID, which is something he said he had kept putting off, and was enrolling in a Housing and Urban Development program. “I’ve never had my life on track,” he said. “I’m 57 years old and more than half of my life, I’ve been incarcerated.”
Higgins said since the community court is designed to help, he hopes he’ll have a better chance at completing it and it’s a better alternative to jail. “I don’t know if I’ll make it or not, but I’m going to try,” he said.
What Higgins wants after his case is dismissed is simple: He wants to live a normal, productive life outside of crime and drugs. This is something that has been impossible for Higgins to accomplish within the criminal justice system, but he hopes with the support of the resource center, he can be successful.
This April, Auburn’s controversial passing of camping ordinance 6817 introduced a criminal tresspass charge for persons found camping on city property who refuse available shelter space.
The law was intentionally planned around the launch of the community court, said Jeff Tate, the community development director for the city of Auburn, in an April 12 City Council Study Session.
Hay believes the ordinance is justified. After a year as Auburn’s outreach coordinator, Hay wants a new tool to motivate people to use the resource center and its services. According to Hay, the city of Auburn has been adamant the law will be enforced with extreme caution and said so far it has not been used since its passing.
“Right now we’re in this place where it’s either ‘give everybody everything and don’t ask anybody to do anything at all or take everything from everybody,’ and both of those are not the answer. There’s a middle and we’re just so far away from that,” Hay said.
Hay said since January, four people he’s been working with have died, and he thinks ordinance 6817 might prevent further loss of life.
“Whether I have to give 95% and you give 5%, I’m okay with that, but if I’m giving 100 and you’re not even trying? Well, then we have to do something different, and that’s where the ordinance comes into play. We’re heavy on the services, but if you don’t want to be a part of Auburn, if you don’t want to be a part of this community, then we’re going to make it real difficult for you not to participate,” Hay said.
While driving on June 24, Hay spotted Adrian Lewis resting in the shade. Lewis currently lives in Auburn and has been homeless since 2016, but said he’s not ready to go inside. Hay said he and Lewis have gone back and forth 30 times regarding the effects of being houseless, but continue to disagree.
Lewis values self-determination. He just wants a safe place to sleep outside, while Hay worries that one of these times, he’ll find Lewis dead in an obscure wooded area.
“We can’t be in the woods — we can’t be in alleys — we can’t be here, can’t be there — we can’t be in front of businesses. So where are we supposed to be?” Lewis said. “They try and force a hand that shouldn’t have to be forced. I feel like every human being should have the right to do what they need to do. I know homelessness is an issue, but at the same time, Auburn, Seattle, Kent, Federal Way, they help make it an issue. If they just gave us a designated area to be in, we wouldn’t even be a problem.”
It’s unclear whether Auburn’s community court and adjoining resource center will have a lasting impact for people who are chronically homeless. Hay and other city officials are optimistic it will, but only time — and the people put through the process — will tell.
Read more of the July 7-13, 2021 issue.