L.A. Free Clinic Still Gets By With a Little Help From Its Friends

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Times Staff Writer

It happens not infrequently at fund-raising parties nowadays.

Prosperous professionals--glossy with upward mobility--listen nonchalantly while Mimi West or Ellen Hoberman praises the Los Angeles Free Clinic, the erstwhile “hippie clinic,” where the Love Generation came for help with life’s unlovely realities.

Then, when no one is looking, one of the middle-age urbanites plucks at her sleeve.

“Pssst--c’mere,” they whisper. “You know,” they say, still whispering, “I went there in 1969 for a VD test.” Or birth control pills. Or a bad drug trip.

“And then, they give a $1,000 contribution,” Hoberman says gleefully.

Twenty years after it opened in the Summer of Love, the clinic--like some of the now-successful people who once used it--enjoys a reputation that has gone “uptown.” Medical schools send residents there. Mainstream health agencies solicit its advice. Its fund drives attract Hollywood names and philanthropists with seven-figure bank balances.


But like the people it serves, the clinic’s sense of mission has not changed. Sick old people, strung-out and ailing street kids and the working poor still go there, where the theme for two decades has been, “Quality health care is a right and not a privilege.”

And 800,000 patients later, it is still free.

One of the nation’s oldest free clinics, it almost prides itself on a homey scruffiness that does not intimidate its patients, who now make 20,000 visits a year for its varied services.

Indeed, when Sen. Ted Kennedy launched the fund drive for a new building on Beverly Boulevard in April, volunteers were tugging at the battered waiting-room sofas and “they started to fall apart,” Hoberman says.

“We’re hoping we don’t scare the kids away with the new furniture” at the new building, says registered nurse Barbara Marshall.

What they have has never mattered much at the clinic; it’s who they have that has made it work.

Volunteers--thousands over the years--are “the heart, soul and backbone of the agency,” Executive Director Gary Bess says. They include lawyers who handle immigration and debt counseling clinics, retired professionals such as an octogenarian pharmacist and a recent dental school graduate who sells BMWs during the day and volunteers at the clinic at night.

In the crowded building bought in 1975, the clinic provides more than medical care. “We treat the whole person,” West says.


Volunteers provide dental work, staff the sex information help line, advise battered women, take the blood pressure of lonely senior citizens who want a chat more than a checkup and work in the “high-risk” program with kids who are “throwaways, not runaways,” says West, who stopped counting her donated clinic hours when they reached 25,000.

The other factor that keeps it free is money--anyone’s but the patients’.

Years ago, the clinic survived month to month, sometimes with less than $400 in its coffers. Now it scrapes by from year to year.

Of its million-dollar annual budget, about $20,000 comes from what clients drop into donation cans--an average $1 per visit from patients. Nearly a third of its clients earn less than $100 a month.

A third of the budget is government money--from cities such as Los Angeles and West Hollywood up to federal grants. The balance is wheedled from private donors, foundations and corporations by the Friends of the Free Clinic.

About 9% is from the United Way, which took on the clinic in 1974, after two previous rejections, West says, reportedly because an important United Way figure “remembered we’d done draft counseling” and objected to helping out so obviously unpatriotic an agency.

The clinic broke a lot of taboos in its frank willingness to enter the unsavory trenches of drugs and sex. “The hippie clinic,” it was called, or “the VD clinic.” Its forms used to ask clients what their astrological signs were.


While its address, at the edge of Hollywood, gave it unique problems, it also gave it unique help. FM rock stations promoted the clinic. British rocker Eric Burdon sang the clinic’s praises for its VD work, confessing that he, too, had had VD and suffered because there was no place like the clinic for him to turn to.

The fabled 1967 Monterey Pops Festival gave $5,000. “For a time,” West says, “the Smothers Brothers paid our rent.”

A man who said he was Elvis Presley phoned once and said, “I wanna come in and make contribution, but I don’t want anyone to see me.”

Sure, thought the skeptical staff. Half an hour later, a limousine pulled up and Elvis, flanked by bodyguards, came in--being careful not to touch anything--and handed them a $10,000 check. “But you have to promise me,” Elvis cautioned, “that you won’t use it for evil.”

Not a few people saw the early clinic as just such a disagreeable place, West says.

Music pulsed through rooms papered with posters of the likes of Jimi Hendrix. A sign over one room designated it for “bummers”--bad drug trips. A sign at the front desk pleaded, “We don’t care what name you give us, just give us the same name all the time, please.”

And the line for help often wound around the block.

Now, the clinic is an upstanding pioneer amid upscale neighbors such as the Beverly Center. The week does not go by that some realtor doesn’t call with an offer; the piece of land that cost $100,000 is now worth $1.2 million.


And as it has outgrown its quarters, so has it outgrown its old reputation.

When the county opened a youth health clinic, its staff waited with white coats and clipboards and wondered why no one came. They finally asked the Free Clinic what was wrong. Get some good music and dump the white coats, they were told.

But the most important reputation the clinic has to keep is the one it has with its clients.

“They’ll come to the clinic when they won’t go anyplace else,” Bess says.

No trips, no hassles. Sixteen years ago, an 18-year-old kid at the clinic said, “I come here because I don’t get the feeling I’m being judged.”

There once was a big basket full of condoms in the waiting room. “Feel free,” the sign on the basket read.

In the AIDS age, the condoms are still free. But they are in the bathrooms. “We believe,” West says, “in confidentiality.”