Celebrating 50 Years: California’s First Community Health Center

In 1968, California’s first community health center opened along the southern rim of the San Francisco Bay, in Alviso. Dependent on nearby agricultural and industrial prosperity, Alviso had previously lacked the funds or resources to provide its own medical care. That began to change in the 1940’s when migrant workers migrating throughout the Bay Area began to venture down to Alviso and establish themselves. A new community identity full of grit and determination emerged soon thereafter, culminating in the creation of the Alviso Family Health Center.
In the 1930’s, Alviso was home to the third largest cannery in the country, active shipyards on the bay shore, and numerous pear orchards on the landward side. Seasonal workers were drawn to the orchards and found temporary housing in Alviso’s shacks and trailers. Soon after, however, the cannery shut down and Alviso began its transition to a backwater community, becoming home to dirt fill and industrial waste. The local economy began to dive, and the town itself sank over six feet as the local aquifers were depleted.
With a depressed economy, unwelcoming geography, and relative isolation, Alviso became attractive only to the most impoverished visitors – mainly Mexican and Chicano migrant workers. Faced with a difficult economic situation, the town of Alviso began selling flooded lots for $5 each to spur investment. The cost of purchasing or building a home was prohibitively expensive, but an unlikely solution appeared in nearby San Jose. Homes in the path of incoming transportation infrastructure projects could be purchased for less than $4,000 and then moved. Alviso also created a new tract of homes by purchasing neglected 3-room homes in Richmond for $1 each and floating them down the San Francisco Bay by barge.
As affordable housing became available, the migratory patterns of agricultural workers began to change. Seasonal work was paired with part-time employment in trades, crafts, and services. As the new residents laid down roots, they also began to organize groups like the Alviso Community Committee to Insure Opportunity Now (ACCION), to advocate for needed improvements. For example, there were no paved or maintained roads, storm drainage and water systems were insufficient, the town had no parks or library, and fire protection was minimal. Most glaring of all, however, was the complete lack of medical services.
At the time, the only option for residents seeking medical care was 11 miles away, at Valley Medical Center in San Jose. Low-income families repeatedly cited the difficulty and cost of acquiring medical care as the greatest problem. In 1964, community members began organizing their efforts to bring medical care to Alviso. First, members of ACCION reached out to the San Jose chapter of the Community Services Organization (CSO) to establish a health clinic. CSO was an active supporter of migrant communities throughout the nation, most notably partnering with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union. In the meantime, with support from the social justice organization Migrant Ministry, Alvisans organized a temporary night clinic in the back of the local poverty program office. CSO continued its efforts to find funding, eventually partnering with the Council of Churches of Santa Clara County to apply for a grant from the Ford Foundation. In 1967, those efforts paid off as $10,000 in seed money was awarded to a newly formed CSO chapter in Alviso to start a health clinic.
With money in hand, Alviso community members leaned on their past experience and found an old motel slated for demolition in San Jose. A lot for the clinic was provided at an affordable rate and on a long-term lease by the Alviso town council. Local construction and farm laborers volunteered their time on weekends to raise and fill the lot and ultimately renovate the motel. Engineers and contractors also volunteered to provide technical advice on the project. Once the clinic was renovated, medical personnel from Stanford Medical School volunteered to staff the clinic and equipment was donated. In January of 1968, the clinic opened its doors.
Not wanting to rest on its laurels, the Alviso CSO immediately applied for more funding from the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). At the time, the OEO was heavily funding the Model Cities program, which was a main component of the federal government’s war on poverty. The OEO received applications from 193 cities. With 1,197 residents, Alviso was the smallest community to apply, and yet they succeeded in being award a grant in the amount of $447,638. The money was used to enlarge the building, purchase modern equipment, hire trained personnel and provide training for junior staff and health counseling to patients.
Within six months of opening, the new facility was being hailed as a model for other community health centers. Government officials, from as far away as the former USSR, and health providers visited to learn how they could emulate Alviso’s success in other communities. The clinic had created so much excitement that Senator Robert F. Kennedy had agreed to dedicate the clinic but was assassinated in June of 1968 before he could do so. A month later, Senator Charles Percy arrived for a tour of the health center, saying that he was keeping the late Senator Kennedy’s promise to visit and to support the community’s efforts. Senator Percy had recently introduced legislation in congress to provide federal funds for more community health centers like the one in Alviso.
Less than 3 years after opening, the Alviso Family Health Center became the largest employer in town, with over 150 employees. Services rapidly grew to include a full dental unit and WIC services. The clinic also expanded its service area to embrace hundreds of families that did not live in Alviso, which were shuttled by a small fleet of buses to the clinic’s site. The clinic continued to be awarded more grants from the OEO, and was the first clinic in the Bay Area to receive a contract under the new Medi-cal program of 1971.
After its initial success, the Alviso Family Health Center would endure nearly constant organizational strain, financial struggles, and even numerous name changes. To survive, the clinic would eventually join forces with Gardner Health Center. After 50 years, the Alviso clinic remains the oldest of its kind in the state of California.
Content curated by Antonio Nunez, Jr.
Photo credit: SJSU King Library