By Shwanika Narayan | SF Chronicle
For Eliseo Moreno, 48, a day laborer and resident of Oakland, Saturday was the first time he tried acupuncture.
“I feel good, very relaxed,” he said following a 25-minute session in which acupuncture needles were placed on his ears and head. “I wasn’t sure about it before, but I’m glad I tried.”
Moreno was among the more than 60 people who attended the inaugural Heal the Hood event in Oakland on Saturday morning. Organized by the Freedom Community Clinic, which brings holistic remedies to the Bay Area’s Black, brown and Indigenous communities, the three-hour affair was held near a homeless encampment at the corner of Eighth Street and Alameda Avenue. Attendees toured stalls where they sampled free offerings from a variety of volunteer professionals, including food packages, hygiene kits, work clothes and hair care.
Many also availed themselves of the traditional and ancestral healing options on display.
Nico Ghan, 32, one of the volunteer acupuncturists, said he treated about 15 people that morning in the traditional Chinese practice that involves strategically pricking the skin with needles to alleviate pain or address other conditions. Two tables away, Reiki masseuses used gentle hand movements, sometimes without physical touch, to ease tension and correct the flow of a person’s energy.
Dawn Surratt, a nurse practitioner who administered blood pressure screenings, handed out first-aid kits and advised people about wound care, said volunteers felt motivated to be out there.
“People show up to help because they care,” she said. “It’s just that simple.”
Integrating Eastern and Western medicine for a “whole body” approach to health is the aim of Freedom Community Clinic, said founder Bernadette “Bernie” Lim.
Lim said she was inspired to pursue a different type of medical career after her immigrant mother agreed to an irreversible surgery without really understanding what it was, due to the language barrier between her and medical staff. A fourth-year medical student at UC San Francisco, Lim, 27, said she plans to run the clinic full time after receiving her medical degree, instead of obtaining a residency at a hospital.
“The immense support we’ve gotten, the belief people have in us in filling a void in the health system, reinforces what I want to do,” Lim said.
Lim’s 2-year-old organization has been hosting free community pop-up clinics like the one on Saturday, and opened its first health center in Oakland in September. The seven-person operation offers physical therapy, counseling services, acupuncture and Reiki massage on a free or sliding-scale basis.
One of the goals of Saturday’s event was to alleviate toxic stress in a community that is more likely to suffer from it and less likely to have the means to address it, Lim and others said.
Stress is a constant in most people’s lives, explained Lisa Fortuna, chief of psychiatry at San Francisco General Hospital and UCSF. While some stress can motivate people to take beneficial action, chronic stress can leave the adrenaline system perpetually elevated, causing cellular deterioration and harming the brain’s structure.
“It’s an inflammatory toxic state in our body, and one that can cause physiological ailments,” Fortuna said of stress. “Natural or alternative medicines, body movement and massages, acupuncture — all of those things can work physiologically on the body to reduce the impact of stress.”
Masseuse Sarah Donnelly treats Martin Curiel-Leon while Jocelyn Gama (right) chats with him during the Heal the Hood event hosted by the Freedom Community Clinic in Oakland. Don Feria/Special to The Chronicle
Homelessness has been associated with poorer mental health, according to a report in the Psychiatric Times, a medical trade publication. It also comes with many psychological triggers, Fortuna said.
“When people are experiencing tremendous amounts of discrimination, or food and housing insecurity, or constant threats of physical violence, where their very well-being and livelihoods are always at risk — these are all major stressors that elevate the adrenaline system,” Fortuna said.
Sabrina Valdez-Rios, an aspiring nurse who works part time at Freedom Community Clinic and organized Saturday’s event, said it was important to recalibrate “touch” as a positive experience for homeless residents who experience higher rates of trauma, including domestic violence, than the general population.
“There’s competing mental health issues going on at once, so when an unhoused person agrees to a massage from someone they’ve never met, that’s a big step for them,” she said.
While not there to provide an energy massage or acupuncture treatment, Jamie Carter volunteered her time and her own version of a healing touch. The hair stylist with Naza Beauty in San Francisco offered 30-minute hair-braiding sessions.
“When I was unhoused, I remember taking extra care of my hair,” Carter, 32, said. “Your hair is your power in not just making you feel good, but in directly affecting how people view you.”