Dr. David Smith at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. Courtesy of HealthRight 360. healthRIGHT360.org
Health Care is a Right, Not a Privilege
The 1960’s saw an enormous influx of youth to the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, with predictions that 100,000 more people would migrate to the area during the Summer of Love in 1967. Despite the association of the Haight during this time with peace and love, new and old residents lacked shelter, food, and resources amidst increased policing and political clashes.
Local neighborhood groups like the San Francisco Diggers organized free meals, entertainment, and safe spaces to connect with neighbors. A long-time Haight resident and Chief of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Screening Unit at San Francisco General Hospital, Dr. David Smith was inspired by a new neighborhood clinic in Watts, Los Angeles, as well as by the free offerings of the San Francisco Diggers. He proposed that the San Francisco Health Department fund a local clinic where residents could seek accessible and non-judgmental medical resources. After the Health Department rejected this idea, Smith started his own.
Dr. Smith opened the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic on June 7, 1967, which was the first free clinic of its kind in the United States. The small clinic on 588 Clayton Street was open 24 hours and saw over 250 patients on its first day, utilizing donated medical supplies and 50 to 60 volunteers.
Volunteers at work at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. Courtesy of HealthRight 360. healthRIGHT360.org
The principles of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic were rooted in the counterculture values of the time and embraced tolerance. Dr Smith commented, "In a free clinic the focus is on health caring for the whole person, on providing a service which is free of red tape, free of value judgements, free of eligibility requirements, free of emotional hassles, free of frozen medical protocol, free of moralizing, and last and least, free of charge.” To help the clinic stay afloat financially, concert promoter Bill Graham hosted benefit concerts with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and other influential musicians.
Fifty years later, the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic is still in operation, under different management. After years of financial and leadership challenges, the clinic merged with Walden House, a Haight Ashbury addiction recovery center, in 2011. Operating under the name HealthRIGHT 360, the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic is now joined by a number of other non-profit clinics across the state.
Smith, David E., and John Luce. Love Needs Care: San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic and Its Pioneer Role in Treating Drug-Abuse Problems. Little, Brown and Co., 1971.
Below: Paintings cover the walls of the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in San Francisco, California. The clinic has been a refuge for everyone from Vietnam War veterans returning home with heroin addiction to famous rock stars since it opened in 1967. (Heidi de Marco/KHN)