White Bird Clinic: A West University neighborhood asset and burden

By Branden Andersen, Daily Emerald (University of Oregon), March 13, 2013

White Bird clinic coordinator Chuck Gerard

White Bird clinic coordinator Chuck Gerard

Kelly, who requested his last name not be revealed, sat on the porch on Monday at the White Bird Clinic on East 12th Avenue. He pulled a hat over his ears that he had just received from a woman sifting through the bin marked “Free Box” to the left of the front door — the bitterly cold air was slicing through his shoulder-length hair and burning his ears.

“You know, I only trust three people in this whole world,” Kelly said as he pulled the multicolored wool hat tight to his brow. “Two of them work at White Bird now, and one worked here before but had to leave. I can’t even trust my own mother anymore — I can only trust these people.”

White Bird, which was started in 1969, is described by community leaders such as Eugene police department officer Randy Ellis, West University Neighbor’s member-at-large Steve Baker, Police Chief Pete Kerns and Mayor Kitty Piercy as being a blessing and a curse to the neighborhood. It was brought up that the clinic is doing the right thing by providing free health care, dental and other services that may be too expensive for many to afford, but the clients who are attracted to the area have upset surrounding businesses and residents many times.

“White Bird has been a neighborhood asset as well as a neighborhood issue for as long as there has been White Bird,” said Deborah Healey, an instructor at the University’s American English Institute and a homeowner of property only two blocks away from the clinic. “If there were similar places in other parts of town, (crime) probably wouldn’t be as concentrated.”

Chuck Gerard, the clinic coordinator for one of White Bird’s three locations, said that he has been asked to relocate multiple times.

“It’s the same thing every time,” he said. “We ask, ‘Where do you want us to go?’ and (business and property owners) reply, ‘Somewhere else.’ There is no ‘somewhere else’ to go.”

Gerard describes how the clinic treats all forms of what he estimates is 12,000 homeless people in Eugene, from those who have had bad luck with the recent economic downturn to those who have been driven to homelessness by drug use or mental illness. The homeless and less-fortunate residents of Eugene have free access to medical and dental services, as well as a place to sit down for a couple of hours, have a glass of water and a snack, use the restroom and recharge.

What they can’t do is use drugs on the premises. If a person uses on their property, they will be “86′d,” or banned from the clinic.

“Do they sometimes meet out there and score? Sure. Do they do it on the property? Not if we can help it,” Gerard said.

White Bird has also experienced the puzzling case of a user overdosing in their bathroom. In Gerard’s eyes, it’s a better place than out on the streets. If the person overdoses, they can be caught quickly and saved. They will be banned from the clinic after the situation settles, but at least they are alive and able to be banned at all.

“They (White Bird’s clinics) are a large part of the attraction to the neighborhood,” Healey said. “If you have a choice between shooting up and maybe dying and shooting up and being saved, you’re going to go where people will save your life.”

CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, is a city-funded department of White Bird that serves as a sort of emergency response service. They receive some 911 dispatch calls, responding to cases that deal with severe intoxication, drug overdose, mental illness problems and other related issues.

David Zeiss, the CAHOOTS program coordinator, doesn’t see a huge connection between the homeless population in the neighborhood and White Bird.

“White Bird does provide some things like a place to use the bathroom and a place to receive mail,” Zeiss said. “But nobody is going to make a trip across town to find a bathroom or even find a place to get their mail. The people who are traveling to come here come for mental counseling or one of those services. Those people are trying to get serious help.”

Kelly, who was at the clinic only for a couple more hours before his Greyhound departed to Salem, said that he comes to Eugene every couple of weeks — and every time he comes straight back to White Bird.

“I’ve been to a couple of rehab places, and none of them have helped me,” he said, describing some horror stories that were shared with him when he was a client at other clinics. “What White Bird is trying to do is help the world realize that there is a serious problem — once you get stuck in a rut, you can’t get out.

“They don’t judge you. They don’t attack you physically or emotionally. They just accept you and do what they can to help you.”