On a recent Saturday afternoon in Bed-Stuy, an A-frame sandwich board on Malcolm X Boulevard advertised the offerings of Bailey’s Cafe. But there were no lattes or quiches on the menu. The “cafe” is actually an event space for local organizations, and today its sign read: “Healthcare for the People: free medical services to anyone in need.”
Inside of Bailey’s, tapestries crafted by local youth lined the wall, along with hand-painted quotes from Gwendolyn Brooks and Toni Morrison. On one of the cafe’s many couches sat Eddie Meraz, one of several licensed, volunteer health care advocates ready to provide medical assistance to anyone who visited. “Our goal and mission is to kind of… protest the health care system,” he said.
As Meraz and his colleagues at Callen-Lorde, a local community health center, labored throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the barriers keeping many New Yorkers from quality medical care became overwhelmingly apparent to them. “The health care system as it is now is an unsustainable and inequitable model,” Meraz said, citing insurance challenges and other limitations, including lack of trust, access, stability, and education. “So our protest is against the health care model while also providing a service to the community.”
Healthcare for the People believes that health care is a right—not a privilege. This belief informs the simple service they provide: free medical care every Saturday from noon to 4pm. They began on September 19 in Prospect Park, and on November 7, they saw a record number of approximately 40 patients. And November 14 marked their continued growth as they gathered at Bailey’s for the first time, where they’ll continue to meet as winter sets in.
For equipment and supplies, they created a GoFundMe that generated approximately $10,000 within the first two days. Their pop-up check-in table, folding chair waiting room, and blue medical tent may at first glance appear to be a robust family picnic. But the purpose of their presence is clarified by the bright, green caduceus (the universal symbol for medicine) emblazoned on their tent, masks, and signs. Like the traditional caduceus, the symbol is entwined with serpents—but in keeping with the spirit of protesters, their symbol culminates not in a staff, but a raised fist.
Anyone passing by the park or cafe can receive services including STI screenings, pregnancy tests, flu shots, blood pressure screenings, wound care, and overdose prevention training. And as their volunteer base expands, so does the diversity of their care opportunities—a Reiki healer, mental health specialist, and even veterinarian have volunteered their services. Insurance and paperwork are never required, and to eliminate as many barriers to care as possible, patients aren’t even expected to provide their names.
“One of the things that’s been really interesting for me,” said Ronica Mukerjee, who serves alongside Meraz on the organization’s board of directors, “is seeing that my acupuncture skills are in demand more than my Western medicine skills.” She’s been an acupuncturist for 17 years and a nurse practitioner for 13. When she noticed that the volunteered services were primarily Western medicine, she decided to offer acupuncture though she didn’t expect to have many patients. “And it’s been incredibly popular, which makes you realize, we actually don’t know what communities want,” she said. “It’s a popular service because people who get access to preventative or more gentle forms of medicine are often people who have a lot of money and resources.”
While Mukerjee is passionate about providing often-inaccessible forms of care to any patient, she and Healthcare for the People also want to recast patients’ expectations of medicine. This requires both adapting to community needs and presenting abundance instead of scarcity. “I think a lot of health care systems that work with poor patients really make patients accustomed to a thinness of care—like they’re only going to scratch the surface of what their needs are,” Mukerjee said. “How many people do you know leave [their medical provider] and are like, ‘I had an amazing experience. Deep in my core I feel better—I felt heard.’ People do not get that experience, and that’s really a big problem.”
As she spoke, the door opened. Mukerjee recognized the patient and said, “I’m so glad to see you!” The patient replied with a laugh: “I brought a friend!” Together, the two friends made for a total of five patients to have visited Bailey’s within the first two hours—three of whom visited for acupuncture. “That’s awesome. Why don’t you guys have a seat?” Mukerjee said. “I’m excited to see you both.”
Healthcare for the People has considered the possibility of opening a permanent clinic, perhaps even—eventually—one in all five boroughs. And with a base that has drawn nearly 60 volunteers in only two months, the opportunity to maximize their services to New Yorkers is promising. But Meraz keeps their work in perspective: “We are one of the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest nations on the earth. Yet here we have health care providers who are volunteering on a Saturday to provide medical care in a park,” he said. “So our best-case scenario isn’t success in expanding: our best-case scenario is universal health care where people can actually access care. That’s the protest that we want people to see—why does this even have to happen?”