Berkeley Free Clinic Hopes to Overcome Major Cuts

Photo: <b>The Berkeley Free Clinic</b> lost close to one-third of its total funding with the passage of the state budget and is now turning to community support in order to maintain its services.
Michael Kang/Photo
The Berkeley Free Clinic lost close to one-third of its total funding with the passage of the state budget and is now turning to community support in order to maintain its services.

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Berkeley Free Clinic

Footage and interviews inside the Berkeley Free Clinic, which has recently lost a large portion of its funding from the state.

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The future of the storied Berkeley Free Clinic has been cast in doubt after the clinic lost almost one-third of its total funding-including all funds for HIV preventive care-to state budget cuts.

The clinic, like many in the state, has been experiencing a tight financial situation since the state budget was passed in August, resulting in a loss of $130,000 in state funding to the clinic for this year, out of a total budget of $374,414.

"We need to assume (state funding) is not coming back and work under that understanding," said Scott Carroll, a longtime volunteer and member of the collective that establishes policy at the clinic. "We will have to be more reliant on community support."

As the cuts affect services throughout the state, clinics are trying to adapt to the new funding situations, said Barbara Raboy, director of the city of Berkeley Public Health Clinic and HIV/AIDS program. Raboy is in the process of applying for new grants to offset the cuts.

"This is what organizations are doing all over, trying to find alternative sources (of funding)," Raboy said. "I don't know if the city is going to provide us with support; I can't assume that."

Several volunteers at the Berkeley Free Clinic see the cuts as an opportunity to bring the clinic closer to the community. They said the tremendous number and passion of its current volunteers make many in the clinic think they can maintain its level of service to the community despite the cuts.

The large role the clinic has played in the community over the last 40 years could be the saving grace that spares it from a drop in service. Originally slated to open in May 1969 to treat people around Berkeley without access to healthcare, the clinic ended up opening a month early to treat protesters from the riots over People's Park.

Since then the clinic, which has treated 9,791 clients for basic medical and dental care in the last year, has grown to serve the whole community and has attracted a diverse population of volunteers.

The clinic has a staff of roughly 150 volunteers from throughout the community working for it, made up of UC Berkeley students, local residents and many past clients.

A great number of volunteers originally came as clients, including Berkeley resident Michael Diehl, who first came to the clinic in 1982 for peer counseling after slipping in and out of homelessness. Now 54, Diehl helps people get through the same struggles he once had, something he said helps him identify with clients.

"I think we get better results than the professionals because they know we have been there," he said.

The volunteers' ties to the community are numerous. For Cora Keeney, 24, her exposure to the damages caused by HIV and AIDS played an important role in her decision volunteer.

"When I was younger, in the '80s ... a lot of people were being affected (by AIDS) and a lot of people started dying," she said.

Keeney, who graduated from UC Berkeley last year, now works in the lab at the clinic testing clients' blood samples for HIV.

The dedication she and others have to their work helps them to look at the future of the clinic in a positive light.

"Morale around here has been really high," Keeney said. "I expected people to be a lot more pissy and angry. We still come here and do our work."

Many of the clinic's volunteers are university students or graduates, exemplifying the somewhat symbiotic relationship the clinic has with the university. Carroll estimates that half of the 2,000 people who came to the clinic for HIV preventive care last year were either UC Berkeley students or staff.

Rob Bayer, a graduate student in the math department, started volunteering in April and is completing his training this month.

"Sometimes I get lost in the bubble of Cal and forget there is a community out there," Bayer said. "Someone comes in who has been bounced around from county hospital to county hospital, trying to pawn them off on someone else, and they come in here for something really simple and we take care of them. There is a lot of inner reward to that."

Patients see it as an invaluable resource, especially since most do not have health insurance. Aries Hines is unemployed and needs a tuberculosis test in order to apply for a job, something that would cost her $70 at other clinics because she does not have health insurance.

Michael McClure, 39, who came into the clinic for a TB test, is also without health insurance. He too stressed the importance of the clinic in the current economic times.

"If you have to pay for health care out of your own pocket, for someone of low income it's a choice between that and food," said McClure, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2007 and currently lives in Oakland.

The clinic has chosen not to cut any of its services despite the heavy cuts, and is instead trying to acquire more community funding from the university, grants and local residents.

Zizi Hawthorne, 27, who has been volunteering at the clinic since she was 12, is trying to organize concerts and other events including MC battles and comedy showcases to raise money.

Diehl thinks the clinic will be able to survive in the future despite diminished state funding.

"There is a lot of community support we just need to tap into it more," Diehl said. "Our collective is strong enough that we will get through this ... it will get us back to what our essential purpose is, providing services for people, not profit."


Contact Javier Panzar at [email protected]

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