UCNW Prescribes Empathy for Confronting the Crisis of Homelessness

A person holds the hand of someone in a hospital bed.

Son holding father’s hand at the hospital

Homelessness has been on the rise across the country since 2016[1]. In places like Whatcom County, the lack of available housing makes homelessness an even more prevalent and visible issue. Most Washingtonians can relate to the sense that housing opportunities are becoming further and further out of reach. The economics of post-pandemic life and the high cost of living in our region have deepened financial worries for everyone. As inflation and interest rate changes threaten to worsen the housing market and exacerbate challenges for small business owners, economic tensions lead to stress that can result in conflict. Negative interactions between housed and unhoused people are particularly discouraging for anyone hoping we can come together as a community to end homelessness.

Organizations that work to provide services to people experiencing homelessness have unique insight into this public health crisis. Unity Care NW (UCNW), a local non-profit community health center, provides comprehensive health care to people who may otherwise be unable to afford it. Their staff see firsthand, the negative health impacts of homelessness on their patients. Many have symptoms of trauma and are made sicker by their lack of access to basic hygiene facilities. With 15% of UCNW’s patients experiencing homelessness – compared to an average of 8% at other community health centers nationwide — UCNW resolved to demonstrate its conviction that everyone who can do something to combat homelessness must do something.

This launched a partnership for UCNW with PeaceHealth, Whatcom County, and Opportunity Council to better serve the health and hygiene needs of people experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County. The result of this collaboration, a new facility called The Way Station, will provide shower, laundry, and restroom facilities, as well as respite beds for people experiencing a medical event who have nowhere to recuperate. The Way Station will also connect clients to Unity Care NW’s mental health and substance use disorder treatment and Opportunity Council’s housing support services.

The facility will be housed in the County-owned building at 1500 N State Street. Renovations are scheduled to begin in early 2023, with hopes of opening in fall of 2023.


Empathy is the Answer

While researching successful hygiene center models, The Way Station partners visited Urban Rest Stop in Seattle. A common theme in conversations with experts on the issue of homelessness has been the power of dignity to restore hope and create pathways out of homelessness. “The Urban Rest Stop has allowed me to clean up in order to help me get employment,” one client said in a testimonial. “They have treated me fairly and with dignity. Without these services, it would have been infinitely more difficult to improve my situation.” The Way Station will model the empathetic, trauma-informed approach that Unity Care NW has been using to effectively engage with patients and neighbors including those experiencing homelessness.

UCNW recently brought Ryan Dowd, the Executive Director of the second largest homeless shelter in America, to train its staff in using empathy-driven approaches to compassionately and effectively de-escalate situations and manage conflict. UCNW also partnered with the City of Bellingham, Bellingham Public Library, and the Mount Baker Theatre to offer this same training to more than 800 staff from local businesses and nonprofits. Empathy doesn’t mean excusing and accepting all of a person’s negative behaviors, it just asks that we approach others with awareness that their unique experience and biology impact their way of moving through the world. This can make all the difference for a person on the journey out of homelessness.

A person doesn’t need to be specially trained to help in the fight against homelessness and an organization doesn’t have to be focused on social services to contribute to addressing the housing crisis. Everyone one can do something to move the needle on homelessness. Unity Care NW is excited to deepen its own commitment to disrupting the cycle of homelessness. Partnering on The Way Station, with a trauma-informed and empathetic approach, will work to remove barriers to basic health and hygiene needs and help more people get into permanent housing.

To find out more about The Way Station or to get involved, go to unitycarenw.org/health-and-hygiene


[1] Source: The 2020 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. January 2021. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).