Graciela Camarasa, 62 and a patient of the Southeast Mission Geriatric Services clinic, holds a sign at the protest.


They may have been over 60 years-old, but on a cold and windy Friday afternoon, the elderly patients of the Southeast Mission Geriatric Clinic showed the feistiness of younger days as they interrupted speeches with cries of “No mas!” and “Si, sepuede!”

The board is “not going to release a single penny of that $45 million unless this clinic remains open,” District 9 Supervisor David Campos said at the rally.

Graciela Camarasa, 62 and a patient of the Southeast Mission Geriatric Services clinic, holds a sign at the protest.
Graciela Camarasa, 62 and a patient of the Southeast Mission Geriatric Services clinic, holds a sign a rally protesting the closure of the clinic.

The Department of Public Health’s anticipated July 29 closure of the clinic at 3905 Mission Street, has made the 270 elderly psychiatric patients the first battle  between the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom over the new city budget.

Speaking to a crowd of about 70 activists, employees and elderly patients in both English and Spanish, Campos was referring to $45 million held in reserve from the city’s largest seven agencies. The funds cannot be spent without the board’s approval. About $12 million of those funds come from the Department of Public Health

The department plans to close the clinic despite $36,636 in rent money that the supervisors added back during budget negotiations.

The clinic serves more than 270 elderly patients, all over 60, low-income and suffering from such illnesses as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression and attempted suicides, according to Sarah Richmond, a social worker at the clinic.

All patients and most of the five staff would be moved to the Omi Family Center at 1701 Ocean Ave, about 25-30 minutes away by public transportation.

The people served by the clinic “worked as cooks, janitors,” and other essential professions such as teachers assistants and paralegals, said Jaime Arcila, a mental health worker at the Mission Family Center.

“They helped build this city.”

“They trust us and they feel comfortable,” Richmond said referring to the clinic. She added that Omi was an adult and family clinic, which treats patients of all ages and would be “louder, more chaotic” and include serious substance abusers. She also said at Omi they would have to put as many as four staff in one room, endangering patient confidentiality.

In a press release from the Department of Public Health, Robert Cabaj, Director of Community Behavioral Health Services, responded to the complaints.

“Given a choice, we prioritize money for services, not to pay rent,” Cabaj said.

“We have never experienced a relocation that did not initially upset some of the people involved. Yet, we also see that three months after the issue, people rarely remember the issue.”

District 9 Supervisor David Campos speaks out against the closure of the clinic by the Department of Public Health.
District 9 Supervisor David Campos speaks out against the closure of the clinic by the Department of Public Health.

Richmond, however, said that the clinic has seen an increase in new referrals, from 121 in 2006 to 147 in 2008. At the same time the caseload per staff member has more than doubled from 40 to 90 in the past two years due to staff cuts and an increase in patients. The clinics serves the southeastern quadrant of the city, 37 percent of which is over age 65.

The clinic’s landlords are also supportive of keeping it open, according to Richmond, providing a seven percent discount on rent, and providing comment in support of the clinic at budget hearings.

After the protest patients settled down to a meal of chips, salsa and burritos in the clinic’s lobby.

“Oh no, I can’t go to Ocean Ave., it’s too far,” said Rosalina Hale, 71, who lives near 14th and Mission. She felt comfortable with the staff she said, “it’s very safe, it’s very convenient.”

“I like it here,” said Dorothy Simpson, 65, who lives a 10-15 minute bus ride away in Hunter’s Point, and has been a patient for the past six years. They’re “always messing with stuff,” she said, referring to city government.

Another speaker, Mesha Izarry, a patient and director of Education not Incarceration San Francisco, put it more bluntly.

“Hell no, we won’t go.”

For Campos and allies District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi and District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly, who were also present at the rally, the issue was a violation of what the board and the mayor had agreed upon in the new budget.

The clinic “was expected to be maintained, preserved and protected,” Mirkarimi said.

“Lines must be drawn in the sand,” he said, “no more of our add backs will be ignored.”

“We are not just going to trust, we are going to verify,” that programs agreed upon in the budget agreements will be funded, Campos said.

He also issued a reminder to everyone.

“We still have not finalized the budget,” referring to the final vote on Tuesday, July 28.

Updated July 31, 2009 – Modified quote from Jaime Arcila.

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Armand is a photojournalism and multimedia student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and is originally from Baton Rouge, La. His work history includes being a paper pusher in Los Angeles and a youth program coordinator in Ramallah, and is currently a student editor at Mission Local, which means he gets to read a lot of news and tell people what to do.

He also waits for the day when bacon and buffalo sauce combine on one plate.

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