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White Bird Clinic

Eugene, Oregon, 2020 update: 

24 years after publishing this article, White Bird Clinic's much-expanded and successful emergency service CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) is getting national attention for its effective and nurturing approach to resolving tough human situations. Healthcare in the US is dismal, and community clinics were meant to address healthcare needs directly. But White Bird, like many community-based clinics, broadened their services to meet the requirements of the times. -- GB

By Marc Bouvier 
RAIN, volume XV number 1
Summer 1996

American politicians need to keep working on national health care. Forty million Americans, one-third of them children, have no health insurance and this number is increasing by more than a million each year. Further, the inefficiency in the health care industry results in nearly a quarter of the cost going to administration. Even if Congress agreed tomorrow to create a complete health care system, one where no one would be neglected, it would take years to implement. But it's not impossible. A small clinic in Oregon has demonstrated for twenty-five years that low cost, high-quality health care can be made available to even the most economically disenfranchised. 

White Bird Clinic opened in February, 1970 when two University of Oregon graduate psychology students saw people on the streets of Eugene who needed mental and medical care. By the end of the first year, with close to 100 volunteers and a small paid staff, they created a crisis line, a drop-in center for people who had bad drug experiences, and a clinic where doctors saw walk-ins once a week. 

White Bird began like many other free clinics founded around the nation during the late '60s and early '70s. Many of these clinics have folded, others have ceased to rely on volunteers, and some, like the famed Haight Ashbury clinic, have survived by providing very specialized services. Few remaining clinics manage the diversity of services that White Bird does. 

White Bird offers free 24-hour crisis intervention counseling, and help in finding the appropriate assistance from the wide variety of agencies and programs in the County. White Bird has become known in the community for providing low-cost and free medical treatment, including exams, medication and lab testing. The clinic also was the first to offer anonymous AIDS testing in the County. In an effort to improve services for lower income residents, White Bird has opened a new, inexpensive dental treatment center. 

Low-cost counseling is available through White Bird for individuals and couples. Recently the agency has begun an outpatient chemical dependency program that includes both acupuncture treatments and counseling sessions. Many of the people who provide White Bird's services are volunteers who have been trained in White Bird's own School of Human Service. 

Nearly everyone involved with White Bird spends time on the crisis line. Most new trainees tend to want to solve the caller's problem. Although they may resolve the immediate issue, they may not address what put the caller in crisis. One White Bird trainer says, "We want our volunteers to learn that it's not enough to just patch a person up and send them back out. We have to assist each person calling to develop tools to deal with the problem in its larger context." 

Beyond this basic philosophy, the counseling or medical approach is as unique as the particular practitioner. White Bird has conventional and naturopathic physicians on staff and some do nutrition counseling. Some counselors apply rather more esoteric practices such as tarot or astrology in their work. Most are political activists, in that they recognize how socio-cultural issues relate to individual troubles. It's a continual challenge, but this diverse group of 250 volunteers and the small paid staff continue to work together as a collective. 

Although White Bird began with a more conventional hierarchical structure, during all these years of consensus decision-making the members don't recall any serious deadlock. That's because collective members allow themselves to fully discuss issues, taking the necessary hours to decide as a group whether to serve coffee or apply for a particular grant. 

For example, a few members wanted a Christmas tree for the lobby. Some believed that in a secular institution, religious symbols had no place. Those involved compromised by putting up a small tree with no religious symbols and a sign that said the tree was not a religious symbol. 

In many large, hierarchical organizations, employees lack negotiation skills to resolve disputes amongst themselves. They often find themselves calling upon a supervisor for guidance. At White Bird everyone is urged to work with each other to settle disagreements and training is provided to assist this process. If one-to-one discussions do not work, disputers may meet with a facilitator. Beyond that, a dispute may go to the departments involved, then a community meeting, or at last resort the board of directors. Most problems, however, are quickly resolved in the first or second step, now that there are many old-timers experienced in settling issues.


During all these years of consensus decision-making, members don't recall any serious deadlock

 
Unfortunately, despite its success, White Bird has occasionally suffered because of its collective status. One of the United States' largest and most well-known charitable agencies, United Way, refused to fund White Bird for years because it wanted a single authority figure to deal with. White Bird members would respond, "Well, we have a Wednesday evening meeting you can attend." United Way finally dropped its requirement because of White Bird's excellent reputation and funded the medical clinic, one of the least controversial of White Bird's programs, and eventually it gave additional funding. 

Despite its counterculture origins, White Bird is increasingly gaining recognition from local government officials and other human service agencies because of their good quality work with difficult clients. Also, having trained a couple thousand people in its school, nearly three quarters of all local social service providers employ former White Bird volunteers or staff members. 

Many are impressed that White Bird also provides medical care in such diverse environments as rock concerts, university football games and the Oregon Country Fair (See RAIN, Volume 14, No.3). White Bird is working with an increasing number of unemployed and homeless people, who are often economic refugees from the declining timber industry. 

White Bird continues to survive financially through local government contracts, small client fees, and a little bit of luck. Because it also continues to rely on a large volunteer staff, only 10% of White Bird's budget goes to administration. Further, in 1980, the members decided that future funding must be from an ethical source and for the kind of activities that they could all agree the collective should provide. 

White Bird has the good fortune of owning some of the buildings it uses. The original founders had the foresight to buy the present property with its two buildings when the agency was barely a year old. The arrangement at the time of purchase was that White Bird would make payments for seven years, then one large balloon payment. In a story fit for fiction, the widow who owned the property refinanced White Bird's mortgage to spite the real estate group that wouldn't return her calls when she first wanted to sell the property in the thirties. 

Longtime collective member Bob Dritz believes that White Bird continues to thrive because of such luck, and because it has continued to adapt to changing times. But most significantly, White Bird thrives because of the dedication and insights of the ever-changing volunteers. "Old time radicals can become the status quo," he warns. For those who want to repeat what White Bird has done in their community, Dritz recommends "Look at what's around you. We designed the clinic around the people, rather than creating a model clinic and putting it around the people. It isn't a chain store." In an era when most conventional medical and mental health practices remain expensive and lacking in individualized care, White Bird is a beautiful and viable alternative, rooted firmly in an understanding of its local community.

White Bird Clinic's main offices are located at 341 East 12th A venue, Eugene, Oregon 97401. (505) 342-8255. 

Marc Bouvier is a community activist, non-profit consultant, chemical dependency counselor, and clinical social worker / therapist, based in Eugene, Oregon.

 
The White Bird pavilion at the Oregon Country Fair

The White Bird pavilion at the Oregon Country Fair in 2020. The fair is closed in the year of the pandemic.
White Bird Clinic CAHOOTS

White Bird's CAHOOTS van workers can provide transport to detox and referrals, on-the-spot counseling, and help to domestic violence victims after the perpetrator has been removed by the police.


white bird clinic collective meeting board


white bird collective meeting

White Bird is managed and run through a relaxed collective decision-making process that involves paid staff and volunteers. 




white bird main clinic

white bird office clinic

Beautiful Clinic buildings provide space for the outpatient drug treatment program and case management offices for the homeless program. 



white bird yurt

The rear of one building connects to a yurt meeting room. This locally-made, low-cost, easy-to-install yurt is nestled beneath several shade-providing trees. It adjoins a small, garden space with carefully placed benches where patients and workers come for a little health-giving relaxation and serenity.




white bird dental clinic

White Bird's low-income dental clinic at 1400 Mill Street. 




white bird walk in clinic

The roads near the street clinic are lined with majestic old trees, with bike and bus routes that provide access to a diversity of clientele.