What if there was an apartment you really wanted but you didn’t have anywhere to take a shower or clean your clothes before you met the landlord to apply for it? Or, what if you didn’t have regular access to soap and water at all? This is the daily reality for too many unhoused people in our community, and Unity Care NW and its partners have a plan to help change that.
Bellingham has become a community where fewer and fewer people can find a place to live, so it’s no surprise more people are finding themselves on the street, homeless, with no options. Homelessness is a public health emergency in Whatcom County with consequences that affect the health of our entire community. Solutions seem impossible, but there is an abundance of both expertise and empathy locally to help individuals in need get healthy and into housing.
The recent Point in Time Census for Homeless Residents showed a modest improvement in our county after years of increasing rates of homelessness. The Way Station will harness this positive momentum and provide a place where people in Bellingham can take a shower, do their laundry and go to the bathroom. It will also do so much more to help restore dignity and hope for people in need of permanent housing. As CEO of Unity Care NW, a nonprofit health center that offers everyone in our community access to high-quality care, I am excited our team is partnering to bring together hygiene as well as medical and mental health services under one roof.
Jodi Joyce is the CEO of Unity Care NW. (Photo courtesy of Unity Care NW)
Every year, Unity Care NW serves more than 3,500 people experiencing homelessness. We see many illnesses that could have been avoided if our patients had access to soap and water and a place to rest when they are sick. We see people with injuries and wounds they can’t keep clean, and people recovering from a surgery with nowhere to recuperate safely. And situations like this are frustrating because they feed into a cycle that keeps people homeless.
Before the pandemic, Unity Care NW began to collaborate with PeaceHealth, the Opportunity Council and the Whatcom Health Department to address community needs. With these other experts on homelessness, we started to ask: What if we designed a place where laundry, shower and bathroom facilities were available to the public? What if we connected those same people to medical and mental health care including drug use treatment when they needed it? And respite beds for people referred from the hospital who need a place to recover from an injury or illness? And what if we had staff onsite to help people navigate the housing system and get them a permanent place to live?
And that is what we decided to do. With this coalition of health and social service organizations, we have designed a unique facility that brings together models that have been successful in other cities. Thanks to funding support, both private and governmental, we can remodel the Whatcom County-owned location at 1500 N. State St. in Bellingham later this year. In order to make these services sustainable, we will need ongoing support and contributions from local individuals and organizations.
If we can come together to support this innovative solution to address the physical and mental health of those in need, The Way Station will help people experiencing homelessness maintain their dignity, improve their health and get into housing. And these positive effects will ripple out to make a stronger community where everyone can thrive. For more information visit unitycarenw.org/the-way-station.
Jodi Joyce has been CEO of Unity Care NW since February 2020. Unity Care is a local federally qualified health center with locations in Bellingham and Ferndale that ensures care to all community residents regardless of means.