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Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic to close

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The free treatment institution weathered the end of the Summer of Love and endured for 52 years

A Victorian house with a large oval sign reading “Haight-Ashbury free clinic.” Photo by stu_spivack

The Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic on Haight Street endured as the lasting and substantive legacy of the Summer of Love for 52 years, but now SF Weekly reports that the defining Haight Street locale will close its doors forever this month.

The related Tenderloin Health Services clinic will close up shop as well.

Lauren Kahn, director of Health Right 360, which operates both clinics, says that it’s just not economically feasible to continue operating the historic Haight institution and that fewer patients are using the site these days.

The clinic’s staff and resources are transitioning to new treatment centers in the Mission and Mid-Market.

In 1967, in the midst of what became known as the Summer of Love, tens of thousands of mostly young people packed the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to practice counterculture lifestyles, perhaps even as many as 100,000 in all.

As historian John Anthony Moretta put it in his book The Hippies, it was “a spectacle, a performance, a saga, a tragedy, and a Saturnalia as tens of thousands [...] descended upon the [Haight-Ashbury] to consume the hippie identity in some form or another, which they had read about in press or seen on television.”

It was an exciting time for the city and the neighborhood, but it came with problems, as the Haight was simply not designed for that many people all at once, and many ended up living in crowded flophouses with unsanitary conditions. Problems related to drug use and unsafe sex proliferated, too.

Dr. David Smith, at the time an intern at SF General Hospital, opened the free clinic in the Haight in June of 1967 with some donated supplies and colleagues’ promises of providing a few pro-bono treatment hours to the community each week.

According to Jeff Guinn’s 2013 book Manson (which chronicles infamous cult leader Charles Manson’s time in the Haight scene), the clinic:

Operated under a simple philosophy: Anybody would be treated without charge, and staff would make no moral judgments about the patients. More than 250 hippies lined up for treatment on the first day, suffering variously from pneumonia, hepatitis, venereal disease, skin and gum infections, malnutrition, dysentery, and complications from botched abortions.

There were 350 the next day, and by the third the clinic had run out of antibiotics. [...] Clinic staff posted a sign: “No dealing, no holding, no using dope—any of those could close the clinic.” Not wanting to scare away trippers in need of care, the sign’s message gently concluded, “We love you.”

Concert promoter Bill Graham raised money to keep the clinic open in its early days. Smith also credits a write-up by the San Francisco Chronicle that provided critical publicity for the clinic in its early days.

The Haight-Ashbury Archives note that “by the end of the year five more [free clinics] had opened” elsewhere, and “by 1970, over 75 clinics appeared in the U.S. and Canada.”

In 2011, the clinic merged with Walden House to form a new, joint non-profit. In 2012 the grouping adopted the Health Right 360 moniker and now provides services in 13 counties.

In San Francisco, the nonprofit operates six agencies besides the Haight and Tenderloin clinics, which remain open.