On April 27, Washington state’s capital budget allocated $4 million to develop The Way Station, a medical center that will serve people experiencing houselessness in Bellingham.
The facility will be located at 1500 N State St. and will offer a variety of healthcare services including respite care, laboratory testing and vaccine administration along with hygiene services like showers, restrooms and laundry. The Opportunity Council will also offer Way Station patients connections to stable housing as they transition out of houselessness.
Houselessness is an ongoing discussion in Whatcom County. According to the City of Bellingham, at least 742 Whatcom County residents are houseless on any given night, and houseless camps have periodically appeared in the area. A 2020 study found that more than half of Bellingham residents ranked homelessness as the biggest issue in the community.
In late January, Camp 210, a tent encampment outside of Bellingham City Hall that was swept by Bellingham city officials and law enforcement officers. This encampment was organized by an occupied protest led by community housing activists in response to changing emergency housing negotiations by the city. Following the sweep in late January, the city has continued to regularly sweep encampments.
Jed Holmes, public information officer and community outreach facilitator for the Whatcom County Executive’s Office, said that the Whatcom County Health Department played an integral role in developing The Way Station.
Holmes said that the State Street facility where The Way Station will be located is currently owned and operated by the Health Department where many Whatcom County staff members work and have offices.
“An application was put in for capital funds, Unity Care and the Whatcom County Executive sent a letter of support encouraging our legislators to sign off on this project, and they came through in a big way,” Holmes said.
Washington State Rep. Sharon Shewmake made the $4 million request to fund the project after hearing about the unhoused population’s need for more specified care.
“I’ve been hearing about this need for a long time,” Shewmake said. “Because the community brought me a really great project, my job was to communicate that this is something that’s really important”
Chris Kobdish, director of planning and development at Unity Care NW, said The Way Station is the product of years of community outreach and planning.
“This is a nationwide problem that didn’t just happen overnight — we had decades of getting here,” Kobdish said.
Kobdish added that the Homeless Strategies Workgroup, established by the Whatcom County Council in 2017, helped to identify solutions for a variety of the unhoused population’s needs. According to Kobdish, one of the biggest objectives of the workgroup was identifying respite care as a necessity for the houseless population.
The Way Station will provide recuperative respite care — medical treatment for individuals who are unable to fully recover from illness or injury on the street but aren’t sick enough to receive care at a hospital.
Along with planning to provide respite care for The Way Station, the workgroup helped develop several other projects including a temporary winter shelter, a civic shower program and a year-round 200 bed shelter at the Lighthouse Mission Ministries Base Camp.
“We’ve yet to come across another program that is as combined as this,” Kobdish said of The Way Station. “It’s all in one location.”
Rachel Lucy, director of community health at PeaceHealth, said that every year, the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center sees hundreds of patients experiencing houselessness who require longer stays than their services can provide. She said that PeaceHealth’s involvement in The Way Station project was inspired by this need for sustained medical support.
Both Unity Care NW and PeaceHealth will collaborate to bring recuperative respite care to The Way Station.
“If we had a place where these patients can go and recuperate, I think it would give us incredible peace of mind that they were in good hands,” Lucy said.
PeaceHealth also played an integral role in planning The Way Station facility. Lucy said that in January 2020, the organization presented a conceptual model for the project to their board, and contributed an initial $400,000 into research, architectural plans and preliminary design work.
In 2019, Jerry Rajcich, a former PeaceHealth intern, spent extensive time researching similar models of medical services for people experiencing houselessness across the country and examined elements that did and didn’t work.
Rajcich said that through his research, he helped develop an ambitious model to solve many of the community’s problems.
“I was stoked to work on something of this nature,” Rajcich said. “Most things have one aspect that is needed — but not wraparound services, not a one-stop for everything you could need, so that’s what inspired me.”
Bridget Reeves, executive director of the Lighthouse Mission Ministries, said that she was excited when she first heard about The Way Station project over a year and a half ago.
“There’s not a lack of need,” Reeves said. “We look forward to continuing to work closely with both Unity Care and [PeaceHealth] to meet the needs of the community.”
Still, Reeves said that there is a lot of work to be done. She said people often create assumptions about unhoused community members that damage the amount of care that they receive.
“For many of us, we don’t know people that are unhoused,” Reeves said. “We don’t know the person that’s standing on the sidewalk holding the sign.”
Rep. Shewmake said that the future of support for Washington’s unhoused population will focus on more specific types of care like what The Way Station will provide. She said that she wants to see more low-income housing projects and services for families, LGBTQ+ youth and people affected by domestic violence.
Additionally, Shewmake said that government investment in early education is another intervention that can help prevent people from experiencing houselessness down the line.
“We see that when kids go to preschool, they make higher wages throughout the rest of their life,” Shewmake said.
According to research provided by the U.S. Department of Education, expanding early learning provides society with a return on investment of $8.60 for every $1 spent.
Reeves said that on a fundamental level, showing compassion for people experiencing houselessness is at the heart of all of the work that needs to be done in the future.
“If we’re housed we also have need in our lives,” Reeves said. “We all have needs for relationships with each other.”
Cameron Bairdis a second-year visual journalism student and a city news reporter for The Front. His work primarily focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic in Whatcom County. When he’s not reporting, he enjoys going on hikes, camping and listening to music. You can reach him at email@example.com.