In November, Seattle, Washington, Mayor Ed Murray and other local leaders declared a state of emergency for the city, due to growing homelessness.
There has been a 21 percent increase in homelessness since 2014, according to a City of Seattle fact sheet on the declaration, with more than 3,700 people now living outside and unsheltered in the county and more than 3,000 schoolchildren living without stable housing. As of the first week in December, 60 homeless people had died on Seattle’s streets in 2015.
One light being shone into this bleakness is that of the Alternative Health Access Campaign (AHAC). The campaign’s staff and volunteers provide complementary health care appointments including massage, acupuncture, herbal treatments and naturopathic care to low-income and homeless Seattle residents.
AHAC serves people at four sites throughout the city, including a homeless tent city, a young adult shelter, a center for homeless youth and young adults, and a low-income-housing apartment building. Without this program, such health therapies would be out of reach of AHAC’s clients, most of whom have very limited access to any type of health care.
Grateful for Touch
Four therapists provide massage for AHAC’s clients. Most new clients have never received a massage before—and many of them suffer from chronic pain, stress or other complex conditions, and benefit substantially from massage. AHAC’s executive director, Ellen Sims, L.M.P., believes the power of human touch can transform lives and support clients’ health.
As a massage therapist herself, Sims began at AHAC as a volunteer working with clients at the organization’s tent-city clinic after one of her friends who volunteered at AHAC convinced her to join.
“I showed up one day at tent city and that was it. It was a no-brainer. When I get to hear the stories and have people who are really grateful for what is provided to them, it makes life enjoyable,” Sims said.
For people who do not typically have much control in their health care decisions, Sims believes that AHAC allows control and decision-making to return to clients.
“They empower, uplift, support and educate,” said Sims. “So, you tell me, how would this not improve health—and why shouldn’t this be accessible?”
A Growing Need
AHAC began in August 1999 to fill a need for complementary care among Seattle’s homeless population. A health care facility called Sound Clinic provided treatment until its closure in 1997, leaving many clients without access to health care. A few students and concerned advocates began AHAC and started offering services in October 2000.
In the program’s first decade, AHAC clinics saw 1,633 clients and provided more than 5,000 treatments. The need for volunteers remains strong as more new clients begin to use AHAC’s services.
Giving her time and energy to help makes society healthier overall, said Sims, and massage therapists have an opportunity to give back to their communities by helping relieve pain and support health.
Respect and Dignity for the Seattle’s Homeless
According to Sims, simply having conversations with clients and treating them with the respect and dignity they deserve is beneficial to their health.
“Many of these people are so grateful,” she said. “Imagine [that] no one else talks to you like a normal human being. That’s not fair.
“Life isn’t fair, but if we can all offer our gifts, our talents, our services,” she added, “just a little goes a long way.”
About the Author
Kaitlin Morrison is a freelance health and wellness writer living in Moses Lake, Washington. A former chiropractic assistant and health care publicity person, she now follows her passion of informing and educating her readers about health care, business and marketing.