Haight Ashbury Free Clinic founder receives Haas Public Service Award

BERKELEY —

When David E. Smith  was first finding his professional footing as a doctor, altruism wasn’t exactly valued in the medical community.

“Public service was out. If you did public service you were not a real doctor,” he says. “In my era, I had to get into a countercultural revolution that was anti-establishment in order to get into public service. And while that’s interesting historically, it’s not a career path.”

It is, however, a path that led him to be honored with the 2013 Peter E. Haas Public Service Award during a Cal Day ceremony. The award was established in honor of alumnus, philanthropist and distinguished Bay Area civic leader Peter E. Haas to recognize Berkeley alumni who have made significant contributions to improving society in the United States, particularly at the community level.

As a freshly minted physician in late-1960s San Francisco, Smith saw the psychedelic scene up close, and — with so many young people flooding the city to “tune in, turn on and drop out” — he saw a healthcare need he couldn’t ignore. And so, in the summer of 1967, he started the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, providing free medical care largely funded by benefit concerts by the Grateful Dead and the clinic’s other neighbors.                                                                                                            

But what may have seemed a seamless solution soon took on a darker color. With soldiers returning from Vietnam, the drugs got harder and the disaffection became palpable. “We deliver nonjudgmental care,” says Smith, evoking the mantra of the clinic’s particular brand of health care, which has evolved into the board-certified practice of addiction medicine. “The vets came to our clinic because they were so alienated from society and the government.”

Along with the Bay Area group Swords to Ploughshares, the clinic worked with veterans settling in the Haight. But the increased patient load stretched the benefit-concert funding model thin. Luckily, another Berkeley alum, Richard Frank, joined the cause immediately after graduating in 1971 and served as CEO during that difficult time.

Frank, who nominated Smith for the award, now heads the Smith Family Foundation.

The issues of that time bear a distressing resemblance to the present day, with more and more veterans returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with substance- abuse problems. The clinic — now part of HealthRIGHT 360, a family of programs that also includes Walden House, Asian American Recovery Services and Rock Medicine — still treats veterans, and anyone else who needs nonjudgmental, holistic care.

“To this day,” says Frank, “David offers his time and prioritizes his assistance to those needing addiction-treatment services and advice.”

Ground zero for the AIDS crisis

Though Smith didn’t expect the clinic to survive so long, the organization weathered the ensuing decades, holding firm to its founding slogan: “Health care is a right, not a privilege.” This became even more apparent during the early days of the AIDS crisis, for which San Francisco was, once again, ground zero.

“We were right in the middle of all these major sociocultural changes and epidemics,” Smith recalls. Through the clinic’s work with IV drug use and methamphetamine users, the organization got involved with the gay community and saw how AIDS sufferers were being ostracized. “A lot of people who were recovering from addiction came down with HIV,” he says. “And you’d visit them in the hospital and they were treated like lepers.”

The Free Clinic and the other programs of HealthRIGHT continue to work with vulnerable populations.That’s good for the bottom lines of the state of California and the city of San Francisco. “Every case of HIV that we prevented saved the system $170,000,” says Smith. Every emergency-room admission Rock Medicine reduces while providing care at concerts and other events saves the system $1,000, he adds, while every dollar in treatment saves seven  in health and social costs.

“We can demonstrate how Cal graduates working in the public sector have saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars,” he says.

The awards ceremony was attended by Smith, Frank, friends and colleagues from throughout Smith’s life, and students from the Peter E. Haas Public Service Leaders Program, a three-year-old campus program supporting students committed to public service. One such student was rhetoric major Joshua Tovar, who sees a parallel to Smith’s life in his own.

”My upbringing ignited my passion to serve youth from impoverished communities because I could relate to them,” says Tovar. “Berkeley gave me the outlet to put my passion into practice.This is what connects my experiences with that of Dr. Smith — it’s Berkeley. It not only gave us the academic rigor to pursue successful careers, but also the theoretical framework to see social injustices occurring around us.”

Smith is grateful to UC Berkeley not just for the foundation it built for him early on, but for how it embraces public service on a systemic level that goes all the way to the top. He cites the support of Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, the Haas family and the campus as a whole for its enduring commitment to the value of public service.

“UC has embraced this while maintaining high-quality research and education, which hasn’t happened on the East Coast,” says Smith. And the very human through-line of his legacy to the future — as edified by their Cal connection — is evident in the public servants of tomorrow.

“Dr. Smith,” says Tovar, “is a true icon for aspiring and current public servants to look up to.”