On a recent Wednesday, the Redmond Regional Library conference room was laid out as if for a career fair, with representatives from groups like IKRON, Hopelink, Friends of Youth and Cascadia College staffing rectangular tables. A woman introduced a lanky man to the City of Redmond’s outreach program administrator.

“This is Kent,” she said. “He’s a magician.”

The man sat, and Kent Hay asked the magic question: “What’s going on?”

The man didn’t know quite where to start: He was tackling meth addiction. Had no income. Was staying in a tent over by Target.

“Well, then I would have found you anyway,” said Hay, who routinely roams the city in search of encampments. Then they started working on a plan.

Hay has a shaved head and solid build. He sits squarely in his chair but leans in when he talks, giving his full attention. He radiates calm but cuts to the chase, his hand gestures punctuating his words.

Kent Hay, homeless outreach specialist, city of Redmond (Courtesy of Kent Hay)
Kent Hay, homeless outreach specialist, city of Redmond (Courtesy of Kent Hay)

He has spent his career working at the intersection of criminal justice, behavioral health and social services. He has little patience for short-term, one-off interventions. When people come to him, he doesn’t condescend or ask them to choose from a menu of services. He listens. He takes note of their goals and challenges, matching them to resources and options. Then he breaks it down into concrete, practical steps. It isn’t literally magic, but it works.

Advertising

“I paint pictures for people,” he told me. “I say, if you want to do this, this is what your plan looks like. I will do everything I can to help you.”

Of the 211 people Hay reached out to last year, 14% achieved their goal or resolved their situation. Another 45% continued actively working with him on solutions. Only one person turned him away.

When Redmond city leaders envisioned this job back in 2016, they saw it as a hybrid — part human services, part law enforcement. Around the same time, they adopted an ordinance prohibiting camping on public property. With Hay’s help, police have made good on their vow to use the law as a tool, not a bludgeon. Their policy is: services first.

Police bike patrols search trails and other hot spots, giving illegal campers notice to vacate. If Hay is with them, as he often is, he helps them find shelter. If he’s not, police hand out his card. These days, he’s so well-known that residents call him directly to report a campsite or ask for help.

Others come to Hay from community court, a King County District Court diversion program that targets the root causes of nonviolent crimes like trespassing and theft. It was launched in Redmond, in part, because Hay already had rallied community partners to hold this weekly resource center.

There were 337 people without shelter observed in East King County during last January’s Point in Time count. That’s only about 6% of the county’s total count of unsheltered persons. But it’s still 337 people.

Advertising

“When I see people out there and they’re doing the same things they’ve been doing for a long time, it’s because we’ve created that,” he said. “If I come and give you a blanket and some coffee and have a conversation then walk away, I’m contributing to your demise.”

That’s why Hay won’t hand out tents or sleeping bags. To be blunt, he doesn’t want to help people get more comfortable living outside.

“I think sometimes you can be compassionate to a point where you’re hurting people,” he said. “We’re creating this whole different world.”

Instead, he wants to help people become positive parts of the community. At the same time, he’s realistic, telling people with fixed benefits like Social Security disability, “Let’s talk about where your money works for you.”

“I’m not going to make false promises, say you’re going to be able to live in Redmond on $730,” he said. “That doesn’t mix.”

When his clients’ plans are unrealistic, he urges them gently in a more practical direction, like a friend offering helpful advice.

Hay’s approach is still a response — not a panacea — for the structural contributors to homelessness. It’s not perfect. People will stumble, plans will have to be rejiggered, resources won’t always align. But it’s something.

Do you have something to say?

Share your opinion by sending a Letter to the Editor. Email letters@seattletimes.com and please include your full name, address and telephone number for verification only. Letters are limited to 200 words.

And for the mom who’s been sleeping in a car with her son and partner, for the man living in a tent in Queen Anne, for the woman who can’t make the deposit on an affordable apartment and all the others Hay helped that day and every day, it’s more than just something.

It’s a step.