How a ‘Hippie Clinic’ in the Haight-Ashbury Started a Medical Revolution
KQED The California Report, By Carrie Feibel, August 11, 2017
Unlike many things from the Summer of Love, the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic survived. The clinic still operates out of a second-floor office overlooking Haight Street. You enter by way of a steep wooden staircase, which leads to a warren of small rooms. One exam room still has a wall covered by a faded psychedelic mural, featuring a collage of famous rock stars, naked bodies and peace signs.
The decor used to be even more colorful, according to lab manager Pam Olton. She has worked at the Free Clinic for more than 40 years.
“Pink, aqua, Day-Glo orange … all of these exam rooms were painted in those Day-Glo colors,” she said.
Olton explained the colors helped the hippies feel welcome, easing their drug-induced paranoia or reassuring them that the clinic was a safe space. In the summer of ’67, and for years after, the Free Clinic treated the countercultural denizens of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. They were often the patients that nobody else wanted.
“You had a big flash mob of kids coming to this neighborhood, from all over, from everywhere in America,” Olton said.
Most were uninsured, and some were living in parks, on the street, or sharing crowded apartments.
“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,” Olton said. “And we have to be nonjudgmental. They’re human beings, they’re somebody’s kid and we need to take care of them.”
Dr. David Smith was a young faculty member at UCSF when he started the free clinic 50 years ago. He’s now 78, but still works in addiction medicine.
Dr. David Smith stands outside the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic circa 1975. The clinic still provides treatment today, and the iconic sign remains. (Courtesy of David Smith Archives)
“We were kind of the caregivers to the love generation,” he said. At the beginning of 1967, Smith had one foot in the world of academic medicine and one foot in the burgeoning counterculture. He lived in the Haight and had experimented with drugs.
“I had an LSD spiritual experience, and a vision that denial of health care to one segment of the population is a denial to all,” Smith recalled.
“So there was a transformation of me in that period, in ’67, like what happened to so many young people. I just happened to have a medical skill when that transformation occurred.”
‘Health Care Is a Right, Not a Privilege’
Smith knew that thousands of young adults would flood into San Francisco that summer, and he was worried not only about who would treat them, but how these young people would be treated by people in mainstream medicine.
“Some of us went to the city and said there’s going to be a huge problem this summer, and we need what we called then ‘a hippie clinic,’ ” Smith said. “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.’ ”
Smith and his colleagues, along with residents of the Haight, started getting ready anyway.
It was during one of their planning meetings when Smith stood up and declared: “Health care is a right, not a privilege.”
As far as he knows, Smith coined the phrase right then and there. “It became the founding slogan of our Haight Ashbury Free Clinic,” he said.
Dr. David Smith (C), Dr. George ‘Skip’ Gay (R) and an unidentified man look over papers in an office at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. (Courtesy of David Smith Archives)
The clinic opened on June 7, 1967, to a line of people stretching down the block. As Smith recalls, the team treated 250 people and worked through the night. The next day, the staff treated 350 people.
At that time, the staff was entirely volunteer — a mix of sympathetic doctors, progressive nurses and politically driven students from the medical and pharmacy schools.
Keeping the clinic going was a struggle. Public health officials opposed it. Money, for rent and supplies, was in short supply. Police officers would frequently show up and search the rooms, looking for illicit drugs and underage runaways.
But Smith was determined to keep the clinic open. The established medical institutions had made their disdain for the counterculture quite clear.
Free of Charge, Free From Judgment
If hippies hurt themselves, for example, lots of doctors thought they got what they deserved. Sometimes hospitals turned them away. And when they got sick from taking illegal drugs, or overdosed, or became psychotic, they were often shamed, restrained or thrown in jail.
But the Free Clinic offered a safe space.
“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,” he said. “You’d be examined by a physician to see if you needed medication to help you come down.”
And it was free. Not only free of charge, but also free from hierarchy, moral judgment and condescension.
Dr. David Smith (second from left) helps a young woman by bandaging her feet as part of the clinic’s street medicine in 1968. (Courtesy of David Smith Archives)
After the Summer of Love, the clinic continued to function as a medical refuge, offering help to alienated and traumatized Vietnam veterans, hard-core addicts, AIDS patients and the homeless.
Eric Smith remembers visiting the Free Clinic about 15 years ago. He was living on the streets of San Francisco and using heroin. He can’t remember why he went there for care, but he does remember what it felt like to be there.
“I went in there, there was a whole bunch of people hanging out. It was cool,” he said. They asked him, “How can we help you out?”
“People were eating,” he said. “Some girl asked if I was hungry. She brought me a vegetarian burrito.
“It was very welcoming and I didn’t feel nervous or ashamed being in there. You know? I felt like these are my people, they’ll help me out. I can be honest with them. I think that carries on right now.”
Meeting Modern Challenges
Eric Smith eventually got sober, and for the last two years has worked for the clinic as a patient coordinator. He is usually based at the clinic’s second location, a larger building in the Mission District of San Francisco.
When patients come to the clinic, Eric makes sure they are connected to the services they need — whether that’s medical or dental care, therapy, detox or a drug recovery program.
But he also walks the neighborhood, doing outreach.
He brings Narcan for opioid overdoses and a CPR mask. He has a big backpack full of snacks to hand out, along with gloves, socks, condoms and toothbrushes.
On the day I joined him for his rounds, Eric stopped by a row of tents on Folsom Street. Men gathered around as he passed out supplies.
“You guys know who I work with, right?” he asked as he handed out socks and granola bars. “So you guys need any services at all? Is there anything you need?”
None of the men were interested in visiting the clinic that day.
Eric just smiled and moved on. He told me no encounter is ever wasted.
“I have to build a trust and rapport with the individual, so they know no matter what they tell me, that it’s safe,” he said.
“You want the best for everybody, but you can’t really push yourself too hard on them,” he added. “You’ve got to meet them where they’re at, and in their time they’ll come around eventually, you hope.”
This painted door marked the entrance to the detox clinic across the street from the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. (Courtesy of David Smith Archives)
Erie Street is just one block from the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic’s location in the Mission. District. It’s a long alleyway of sharp shadows and slants of sunlight. There was a tent at the far end, and a guy on a stepladder, spray-painting a mural on a large blank wall.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Eric said. “I used to get high in this alley, too.”
He nodded to a spot on the curb. “Right here.” He pointed to another: “Right here. So for someone who’s come from the pit, I actually really care. I feel for these individuals.”
But there was no time to dwell on that past, because Eric had spotted some new faces.
“Hey, guys,” he boomed, smiling and striding over. “You need any socks?”
A man and a woman were cuddling together sleepily with just thin sleeping bags against the hard sidewalk.
Nearby was a shopping cart stuffed with belongings and a cooler. A pit bull puppy flopped across their legs. They sat up and happily accepted everything Eric offered.
“Hey, so you guys, you guys need any medical attention at all?” Eric asked. “Do you got Medi-Cal?”
Sean and Kat are from Ukiah, in Mendocino County, and had been in San Francisco for only a month. They needed advice, and Eric had plenty: They talked about places to get day-old pastries, charities that offered free breakfast or lunch, or even showers. Eric pointed out the clinic. They discussed getting the puppy fixed at the SPCA.
“You guys use?” Eric asked. “I mean I’m an old junkie, all right?”
“We’re working on quitting,” Kat said.
“Oh what, heroin?”
“No,” said Sean.
“Yeah, we smoke.”
Kat told Eric she used to slam, meaning she used to inject it. But after meeting Sean, she was able to stop that. He helped her “get off the needle.”
Eric jumped on this: “Really? So you guys are together. And you’re supporting one another, all right?”
Giving up the needle is a small step, but a positive one. It’s a little less harmful. Eric wanted them to know he gets it: They’re trying.
“So you guys, come and talk to me, OK?” he told them. “Seriously, if you want help at all. I don’t care if you don’t want recovery or not, but just to know that there’s someone out there. I used to get high right here in this alley, dude, back in the day.”
The kind of care Eric is offering — nonjudgmental, patient, compassionate — goes straight back to the earliest days of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic.
It’s an unremarkable approach these days, common in social services. But 50 years ago, before the Summer of Love, it was radical and new.
Survival in Consolidation
Today, the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics are part of an umbrella organization called HealthRIGHT 360. It’s a large network of social service agencies, tackling a variety of problems besides health care: domestic abuse, rehabilitation for ex-inmates, gay, lesbian and transgender health, and addiction.
Consolidating with other agencies helped the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic survive.
Seven years ago, in 2010, it was struggling financially. Some staffers had been caught embezzling, and the clinic couldn’t afford the transition to electronic medical records, a new requirement of the Affordable Care Act.
In 2011, the Free Clinic joined forces with Walden House, a nearby addiction recovery center. Other nonprofits soon joined as well, and HealthRIGHT 360 became the umbrella brand, allowing the smaller agencies to pool resources for administration, electronic records and fundraising.
Dr. David Smith, who started it all, applauds the decision to consolidate with other nonprofits. But he does miss the intimacy of those early days, when volunteers from the neighborhood worked at the clinic.
When money got tight, there were benefit concerts featuring local bands like Big Brother and the Holding Company, during the time Janis Joplin was the lead singer.
Dr. Smith lived in the Haight, and so did Janis Joplin. He remembered the night he saved her life.
“There was somebody at our clinic that was close with her — her name was Sunshine,” he recalled. “It was near the Grateful Dead house, and we got a call that she’d overdosed. So we zipped up there with the Narcan and reversed her overdose.”
“She was a wonderful woman, a great singer, very involved in the community,” Smith said. “But she had a very serious addiction problem, bounced back and forth between heroin and alcohol.”
After the Summer of Love, free clinics opened in Seattle, L.A. and Berkeley. By the end of the ’60s, the U.S. had dozens of free clinics, a third of them in California.
All were founded on that simple principle Dr. Smith first articulated 50 years ago: Health care is a right, not a privilege. No matter how you look, dress or act.
“In other words, when you get treated in a humane way in the medical system, the spirit of the Summer of Love lives on,” Smith said.