Health clinic network a welcome remnant of the ’60s 

One thing about the ’60s in San Francisco is that for a lot of people who experienced it, they don’t remember it so well.

Much of that hazy period exists primarily in textbooks, on T-shirts and in novelty shops. DayGlo is but a memory, though some entrepreneur at one point had the bright idea to copyright it.

But a few things emerged from the hazy drug period that became fixtures in the civic heart and mind of San Francisco and its spasmodic nonprofit culture. That would be the compassionate service centers that sprang up around the psychedelic epicenter stirring in the Haight — places borne of necessity that grew ever more focused as the drugs and their abusers hardened.

The Summer of Love spawned many things, including, in 1967, the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, a consortium of health care centers to provide medical help to the homeless and the uninsured. Two years later, just a few blocks away, Walden House opened to help wayward youths recover from substance abuse problems.

The two institutions expanded over time — the free clinics began to handle HIV/AIDS cases and Walden House began treating prisoners here and in Southern California — offering a wide array of other services. But as other nonprofits sprang up to fill various niches, the struggle for dollars tightened, and more recently, state and federal funding began to evaporate in a crumbling economy.

So rather than continue to struggle along, the two health organizations came up with a cure: join forces to combine services and save money. If their cultures don’t entirely mesh, their core missions do. A few weeks ago, it became official: Two of the best-known medical and treatment providers in San Francisco are now joined as Haight Ashbury Free Clinics and Walden House, a one-stop shop that will provide primary care and behavioral health services to those in desperate need of it.

“We were two distinct entities that offered some similar services,” said Vitka Eisen, the CEO of the newly merged business. “What we have now is a great care model that allows us to provide better quality care with more comprehensive programs.”

Few people understand those programs better than Eisen, who years ago suffered from a drug dependency, sought help at HAFC and was then transferred to Walden House, where she got straight and clear-headed. She ended up going back to school, received her doctorate in education from Harvard and emerged as a drug rehab specialist back at Walden House.

“I personally find this so exciting,” she said. “When I was dealing with my issues back in the mid-’80s, these places were so nonjudgmental it was refreshing. But I never thought I would be the CEO of Walden House.”

A lot of people will find good fortune in her success. Last year HAFC provided medical care to more than 7,500 patients at its historic home on Clayton Street and at its center in the Mission district. Walden House served more than 9,200 clients at its facilities here and in Los Angeles.

The combined organization has an annual operating budget of $60 million, with nearly all of the money geared to providing health care and treatment services. The merger is expected to shave more than $1 million in administrative costs.

“The merger made sense because both organizations had similar style and shared a common mission,” said Eric Flowers, the vice chair of the new, combined board of directors. “The way health care is changing, particularly in San Francisco where there are so many nonprofits, you won’t be able to service the broader community if you stay on your own.”

No mergers are seamless, but this is not like trying to join the UC Berkeley and Stanford medical schools — a forced marriage that ended in a messy divorce. These two help centers grew out of the same seed, one that has made San Francisco a shining knight when it comes to helping the poor and suffering.

That idea didn’t start in the ’60s. But the face of nonprofit health treatment found its home just blocks from the movement that started along the Panhandle. Nearly 50 years later, it’s still here, albeit with a much longer name.

The times — they certainly changed — but the needs didn’t.

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Ken Garcia

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