Free Clinics, Serving The Public And Invigorating Democracy

Universalized, publicly-funded, health care might be in the future of the United States but it will not be your elected legislators who bring it in. The Common Ground Health Clinic in New Orleans is a free medical clinic founded in 2005 to serve communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The work of the clinic saved lives in Post-Katrina New Orleans, and 12 years later it continues to serve residents of the city.  

free clinic, healthcare, free healthcare, solidarity

Volunteers from the Common Ground Health Clinic in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. Photo Credit: Coleenm/

The American people need a Plan B for their system of governance. They need to supersede the corporate agendas of their legislators by creating the institutions, and providing the services that the Progressive community believes are due to everyone. To meet this goal, free clinics and other projects that provide essential services to people need to cover this country. Food Not Bombs and the table-service soup kitchen in Seattle cover the food aspect of this. They meet the unmet needs of people and treat them with dignity.   

Building these projects, and the communities to sustain them, would benefit society by decreasing need and encouraging people to engage in their communities as they take part in or receive services from the projects. These interactions could be the building blocks of a civic culture able to invigorate democratic politics and participation.

Free Clinics In The 60’s

The first free clinic was founded in 1967 in San Francisco after the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood had a population boom in the, “Summer of Love.” Dr. David Smith started the clinic to provide care for people with drug addiction and mental health problems. The motto of his clinic, and the eventual motto of the free clinic movement, was, “Healthcare is a right, not a privilege.”

A half-century later the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic has rebranded as HealthRight 360. They run two clinics and provide primary care, sexual health care, and psychiatric care among many services. In 2016, according to data on their website, they held nearly 30,000 appointments and hired more than 1000 people in two offices.

There are more than 1200 of these clinics in the country and in 2014 there was a 40 percent increase in patient demand. These numbers come from a report from the National Organization of Free & Charitable Clinics.

A Free Clinic Serving Post-Katrina New Orleans

The logo of the Common Ground Health Clinic.

The Common Ground Health Clinic in New Orleans was founded by Malik Rahim and Sharon Johnson after they witnessed the failure of their government to protect the poor of New Orleans in the hurricane-ravaged city. An editor from the San Francisco Chronicle, Mary Ratcliffe, interviewed Rahim over the phone while the city was still underwater.

“This is criminal,” he told her. “There are gangs of white vigilantes near here, riding around in pick-up trucks, all of them armed … People whose homes and families were not destroyed went into the city right away with boats to bring survivors out, but law enforcement told them they weren’t needed. I’m in the Algiers neighborhood. The water is good. Our parks and schools could easily hold 40,000 people, and they’re not using any of it.”

Ratcliffe shared Malik’s frustrations with her followers and within a week the clinic was off of the ground with four organizers showing up from across the East Coast. Within a month there were dozens of volunteers serving around a hundred drop-ins a day. They also began an outreach project to connect with the local Latino population. The motto of Common Ground was, “Solidarity not charity.”

Delivering services to the people who need them is a powerful form of direct action. It is a statement that you will not accept the presence of material need in your society. It is a statement of disappointment that your government has failed to meet the needs of its citizens. And it is a demand for that government to recognize its failures and move to address them or become obsolete.

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