angel sightings

Dental Care for the Homeless and Underserved

by Harry Goldhagen
Published 12/21/20

Angel Sightings is a periodic collection of stories and articles published on other sites that highlight medical heroes and their work.

Dental care can be expensive, especially when people do not have access to preventive services including regular cleaning and early attention to cavities. The homeless often lack toothbrushes and dental floss. Medical insurance for the poor often does not pay for dental care until problems drive people to the emergency room with abscesses and other life-threatening infections.

HHH dental clinic
Volunteer dental clinic for children (HNT)

Poor dental health can also compromise other health conditions, such as heart disease. And those missing teeth are unlikely to be hired, even if they are otherwise healthy.

For the homeless and other uninsured and underserved populations, poor dental health is a way of life. But a number of organizations have shown that this does not have to be the case.

This collection features organizations that bring dental care to the underserved: Homeless Not Toothless, Healthcare for the Homeless - Houston, and the Brighter Way Institute.

Homeless Not Toothless

Dentist and young patient
Dentist and young patient (HNT)

Homeless Not Toothless (HNT) provides free quality dental care to the homeless, foster youth, and low-income people in Los Angeles. As described on their website, HNT began in 1992 when Dr. Jay Grossman, a dentist, decided that giving money or leftover food to the homeless he passed by was no longer sufficient. One day, while reaching for another dollar bill to hand out to another homeless man, he felt his business card.

"So instead of a dollar," Dr. Jay wrote, "I gave him my business card... 'Let me see what I can do about getting you out of pain and replacing those missing teeth so you can function by eating and look good for a job interview. That'll give you more benefit than my giving you a buck.'"

Within seven months of handing out that first card, he had performed more than 100 procedures on the homeless free of charge. Soon after, he partnered with the Venice Family Center, a nearby clinic that provides free health care services to the underserved. They came up with a few ground rules for care, which included 90 days of sobriety and actively looking for work.

Since then, HNT has provided more than $5 million in services to over 60,000 patients. All the work is done by volunteer staff and labs. In cooperation with Sharon Stone's Planet Hope, they rebuilt a dental facility to extend free dental care to the 28,000 foster youth living in Los Angeles.

Dr. Jay wrote, "My goal is to expand Homeless Not Toothless nationwide. This is my way of giving back to my community and doing what I can in helping to repair the world."

Recent articles:

Healthcare for the Homeless - Houston

Before and After
Before and After (HHH)

According to its website, Healthcare for the Homeless - Houston (HHH) began in 1999 as a small two-exam room clinic with an adjacent dental chair tucked into the corner of a crowded day shelter. The old, donated dental equipment was so loud that medical and dental patients could not be seen at the same time.

HHH is now the community's leading provider of homeless health services, operating three clinics throughout downtown and central Houston, a full-service dental clinic, and many other outreach services.

For homeless men and women in Houston, they are the only free, full-service dental clinic, where they see more than 6000 people a year.

Brighter Way Institute

Dr. Kris Volcheck and staff
Dr. Kris Volcheck and staff

It has been an unusual journey for Dr. Kris Volcheck. Though he trained as a dentist and practiced for many years in southern Arizona, at a certain point he decided dentistry wasn't for him. So while still practicing he entered business school. But instead of going into business on graduation, he began volunteering with Central Arizona Shelter Services (CASS), a nonprofit organization in Phoenix that helps the homeless. It was more satisfying than his dental practice, so after 10 years, with degrees in dentistry and business, he became a case manager for the homeless.

He could see that his homeless clients desperately needed dental care, but there were few if any opportunities or money for care. So in late 1999, when a used dental trailer with two dental chairs became available from the state at no charge, he and CASS obtained one, and in little over a year he opened the volunteer-staffed CASS Dental Clinic. Four years later he helped design and oversee the construction of a permanent eight-chair facility.

Since then he has expanded dental care to three clinics, with a large number of volunteers and donated high-end dental equipment, for treating veterans, the homeless, and uninsured and foster children. In 2016 the three clinics were reorganized into The Brighter Way Institute. More than 27,000 patients are treated each year, although during the pandemic precautions have been taken to keep the staff and patients safe, reducing the case load.

Recent articles:

Other Organizations

There are a number of other organizations that provide free dental care to underserved populations, either as their mission or as part of a larger medical service. The Medical Teams International mobile dental program has a fleet of mobile dental vans that travel to towns and neighborhoods in the Pacific Northwest where people in need -- those living in poverty, people with disabilities, the elderly, the homeless, migrant workers, Native American populations, recovering addicts, veterans and youth -- are located.

A dental technician in Dublin, Ireland has been providing dentures to the homeless by setting up in front of the post office each Friday. The charity Carrefour-Rue offers free dental care and dentures to the homeless in Geneva, Switzerland.

There are numerous other programs within the U.S. and globally, but the need greatly exceeds current availability of care. The most long-lasting and beneficial approach will be integrating dental health into existing healthcare programs, and making them affordable for all.

Do you know any dental care heroes? Let us know here.

About Angels in Medicine

Angels in Medicine is a volunteer site dedicated to the humanitarians, heroes, angels, and bodhisattvas of medicine. The site features physicians, nurses, physician assistants and other healthcare workers and volunteers who reach people without the resources or opportunities for quality care, such as teens, the poor, the incarcerated, the elderly, or those living in poor or war-torn regions. Read their stories at www.medangel.org.

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