05 Aug Origin Stories: White Bird Clinic
By Benjamin Brubaker, Co-Clinic Coordinator & Dee Hall, Retired Grant Writer, White Bird Clinic
White Bird Clinic is a collective environment organized to enable people to gain control of their social, emotional, and physical well-being through direct service, education, and community
The White Bird organization and its original medical services were inspired by the hippie movement of the 60s. As a university town on the interstate between San Francisco and Canada, Eugene received a full share of disenchanted, angry, and rebellious youth who had rejected authority and conventional lifestyles by turning on and tuning in to a new consciousness. They were experimenting with hallucinogens, amphetamines, and barbiturates, but the drug of choice was LSD. These were Eugene’s first homeless since the Depression and they were primarily white youth on their own, often for the first time, middle class experienced, but inexperienced at taking care of themselves. They were without medical care but with all the needs related to inadequate shelter, nutrition, and recreational drug use. The hospitals and clinics to which they were referred or delivered did not know how to treat trippers or freak outs, but they did expect to be paid. There were disappointments on both sides.
Out of this purple haze, two University of Oregon doctoral students in psychology enlisted the support of a successful and respected local surgeon who, as president of the local Medical Society, had been campaigning for a better response to drug overdoses than massive doses of anti-psychotics. The three men conceived of a psycho-social-medical approach influenced in part by the Haight Asbury Free Clinic. The doctor had local professional contacts which the students lacked and ultimately more than 100 community leaders were involved in crafting a proposal to create a free clinic, to be known as the White Bird SocioMedical Aid Station, Inc. The name “White Bird” was the result of an album from the group A Beautiful Day playing while the final proposal was crafted. The desk at which this was written is still used by the Clinic Coordinators.
The first successful grant requests were to the City of Eugene and State of Oregon, totaling just under $13,000. The original plan was to engage youth on the street and deliver needed care. Very quickly it was determined that didn’t work well—no privacy, too many supplies to carry, no security, etc. With the first grants a small house was rented. Furniture was donated by local churches; medical equipment and supplies by area hospitals and in the first month over 150 volunteer doctors, nurses, plus dozens of attorneys, social workers and educators donated time and services to set up the clinic.
With an address and a donated telephone, it was enthusiastically decided to set up a drug crisis hotline which could be confidential and encourage referrals. At this point everyone was working for free. Again, very quickly it was determined that the community really needed a crisis line since more than half of the calls received were not drug related. A training program and resource handbook were devised. Walk-ins were welcomed and it was not unusual for the police to deliver trippers to the doorstep, rather than put them in jail or try to get them admitted to a hospital.
Also at this time, communal living was developing as a way to build community, lower rent expenses, and share a common purpose. One of the coordinators was a member of the Still Stone Commune (it was somewhat moss covered) and he recruited the other members to become a core group of volunteers. Starting with crisis training, and 24/7 coverage, they also provided drug education in schools, churches, and the streets, spotlighting the holes in the safety net. In the process of advocating for empathetic care for all, they became the core staff that held White Bird Clinic together in times of growth, and in inadequate funding.
White Bird continues to support individuals who are marginalized and alienated by the dominant culture. This includes a diverse range of folks from across the spectrum and includes individuals from all socio-economic groups. From the gentleman who is homeless on the streets to the gender-questioning youth struggling with depression in their middle-class home, we continue our work of being the safety net below the safety net, because a net has holes, and White Bird continues to try and catch those who have been failed by the flawed mainstream systems of care and support.
Our agency has strived to reimagine the work we do during the pandemic with a massive increase in telehealth appointments in all our departments. Our medical clinic has designed and built stand-alone exterior “telehealth stations” so that we can continue to serve individuals who do not have access to technology due to their housing status or economic barriers. Dental has begun doing remote supervision on its 4th year students to continue to serve individuals suffering dental pain and to continue to educate new dentists who want to help those who would otherwise be unable to find appropriate dental care. Our day access center has continued as a resource distribution center for those who are “sheltering in place” on the streets and has expanded outreach to get critical supplies to those in need. Additionally, our agency administration and teams now work primarily online to reduce the risk of infection to our staff and have maintained the supply lines necessary to ensure our staff always have appropriate PPE.
The rise of the BLM movement has thrust White Bird Clinic’s mobile crisis intervention team (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) CAHOOTS into the international spotlight and White Bird has responded by hiring a full-time consultation organizer and re-tasked staff internally to assist other cities across the country as they work at re-imagining public safety in their communities. Additionally, the vocal outcry across the county demanding racial equity and justice has motivated our organization to look internal at our own organization’s policies and structures that may contribute to perpetuating white supremacy/racism. We have embraced this work and believe it is up to each individual and organization to also do the self-reflective work that must be done in order for us all to create a more fair and equitable society.