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.
“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.”…