Haight Ashbury Free Clinic Going Strong 50 Years On : Shots - Health News Fifty years ago a community health clinic first opened its doors as a safe, sympathetic space for countercultural youth. Today its motto is the same: "Health care is a right, not a privilege."

A 1960s 'Hippie Clinic' In San Francisco Inspired A Medical Philosophy

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Fifty years ago in San Francisco, a small community clinic opened its doors. The mission was health care but with a countercultural twist. It was 1967, the year of the Summer of Love. And the young people who flocked to the city were often homeless, hungry or sick. Carrie Feibel from KQED reports on this scrappy clinic's history and its new clientele.

CARRIE FEIBEL, BYLINE: From the start, the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic tried its best not to look like a clinic. In one room, there's still a psychedelic mural painted years ago - a faded swirl of naked figures and peace signs.

PAM OLTON: Pink, aqua, DayGlo orange. All of these exam rooms were painted in those DayGlo colors.

FEIBEL: Lab manager Pam Olton has worked here 40 years. She says the colors help the young patients feel welcome and safe, especially if they were disoriented from drugs such as acid. In 1967 and for years after, these were the patients that nobody wanted.

OLTON: These people are out in the street. They're kids. They're dirty. They're a mess. And they're addicted, but we have to take care of their medical needs first. And we have to be non-judgmental. They're human beings. They're somebody's kid. And we need to take care of them.

DAVID SMITH: We were kind of the caregivers to the love generation.

FEIBEL: David Smith was a young doctor at the University of California, San Francisco when he started the free clinic. He's now 78. Smith says opening the clinic was a struggle. Back then, the hippies were ostracized almost as much as the homeless are today.

D. SMITH: Some of us went to the city and said, there's going to be a huge problem this summer. We need a - what we called then a hippie clinic. And it was soundly rejected by the Health Department. They had no interest in this. They said, we don't want to take care of them. We want them to go away.

FEIBEL: If the hippies hurt themselves, well, lots of doctors thought they got what they deserved. Sometimes, hospitals turned them away. And when they got sick from taking illegal drugs, they were often shamed, restrained or thrown in jail. But the free clinic took a different approach.

D. SMITH: If you were taken to the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, you would be put into a room with a tie-dye and a talk-down guide and a lava lamp. You'd be examined by a physician to see if you needed medication.

FEIBEL: And it was free. After 1967, the clinic continued as a medical refuge. And its compassionate approach endured through the harder drugs of the '70s and the AIDS epidemic of the '80s. Eric Smith remembers visiting about 15 years ago. He was living on the streets and using heroin.

ERIC SMITH: I went in. There was a whole bunch of people hanging out. It was cool - how can we help you? People were eating. Some girl asked if I was hungry. She brought me a vegetarian burrito. You know, it was very welcoming. I didn't feel nervous or ashamed being in there.

FEIBEL: Eric eventually got sober. And today, he works for the clinic. These days, the challenges include opioids and meth and a housing crisis that has pushed homeless people into the streets. Eric likes to visit the tents that homeless residents have pitched on sidewalks or under bridges.

E. SMITH: It's heartbreaking. I mean, I'll tell you I used to get high in this alley, too. Right here. Right here. So I'm - you know, so for someone who's come from the pit, I actually really care. I feel for these individuals.

FEIBEL: He brings bandages and toiletries, snacks and dry socks. Up ahead, Eric sees some new faces.

E. SMITH: Hey, guys. You need any socks?

FEIBEL: A man and a woman cuddle together on top of thin sleeping bags. They have no tent, just a shopping cart and a cooler.

SEAN: Doing God's work.

E. SMITH: Socks? Snacks? So you guys need medical attention at all?

FEIBEL: Sean and Kat came to the city a month ago. Eric tells them where to get free meals and even showers. He urges them to drop by the clinic.

E. SMITH: You guys use? I mean, I'm a old junkie, all right?

KAT: We're working on quitting. But yeah.

E. SMITH: Oh, what, heroin?

KAT: No.


E. SMITH: Meth?

SEAN: Yeah.

FEIBEL: What Eric offers here is health care with dignity in which addiction is a disease, not a crime.

E. SMITH: Why don't you come see me to - Monday through Friday, just come down there and come talk to me, OK?

FEIBEL: Haight Ashbury Free Clinic pushed that radical approach into the mainstream. Today, the clinic is part of a larger network of health charities in California all committed to a principle Dr. Smith first articulated 50 years ago in a phrase you still hear today - health care is a right, not a privilege, no matter how you look or dress or act. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Feibel in San Francisco.

WERTHEIMER: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News.

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