Nearly 4,000 homeless men, women and children lie down to sleep each night on sidewalks, in doorways, canyons and alleys in San Diego, California, where warm daytime temperatures give way to long, cold evenings.
Some California dental clinics are prioritizing services that prevent, reduce and eliminate dental disease while promoting good oral health for the homeless — a part of an underserved population reaching crisis levels in the Golden State.
Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego is well-acquainted with this population as it began serving the homeless and vulnerable in 1950.
Beginning with small chapel downtown, Father Joe’s Villages has grown to include a comprehensive campus and programs that house over 2,000 people nightly.
Father Joe’s dental clinic is located within the Village Health Center, which also provides supporting services such as medical care, psychiatric care, substance abuse treatment and behavioral health care. In addition to the health center, Father Joe’s also provides short-term shelters, long-term housing, social work services, meal distribution and other services such as a mail room, education center and shower facilities.
Along with those other services, Father Joe’s Villages provides dental services to hundreds of homeless patients every year, including teeth cleanings, fillings, crowns, root canals, extractions, and partial or complete dentures.
It also offers walk-in appointments, and dental emergencies can often be treated the same day.
Samantha Melzer, D.M.D., is a staff dentist at the federally qualified health center and has been there for four years.
“Our clinic accepts patients experiencing homelessness, but also for patients who are at risk of becoming homeless and those who have been homeless in the past year,” Dr. Melzer said. “Some of my patients live on the streets, some are couch surfing, some in short-term shelters and some in long-term supportive housing.
Their ability to maintain daily oral hygiene is greatly impacted, no matter what the living situation is. It is not uncommon for me to meet a 30- or 40-year-old patient who reports never having been to the dentist before.”
Dr. Melzer added, “I cannot discount the joy I receive treating the patients of Father Joe’s. Our patients all have such different backgrounds and personalities. Most are extremely grateful and very pleasant to work with.”
Dr. Melzer said one patient in particular really sticks out in her mind because of the transformation he made in the four years she had known him. She first met him when he was in extreme dental pain and in the throes of a severe substance use addiction.
“He was absolutely terrified of going to the dentist and had a mouth full of teeth that were not savable due to the extent of decay,” she said. “He was disheveled, living on the streets and borderline aggressive in the clinic.”
Dr. Melzer referred him to an oral surgeon, but he refused to go for years because his fear blocked him.
She would see him every few months as he would return to the clinic due to the excruciating dental pain he’d been living with for so long.
Over time, he slowly started to trust Dr. Melzer. He also started meeting with one of the clinic’s behavioral health specialists to work on reducing his substance abuse and improving his mental health.
Fast forward a few years, and the patient was finally ready to face his anxiety
fear of dental treatment .
“He was sober and was able to go to the oral surgeon and have his teeth removed,” Dr. Melzer said. “I then made dentures for him. Shortly after, he was approved for housing. The transition I saw in this patient over the years was nothing short of incredible. I never could have imagined the man I met four years ago would be the man I was able to make dentures for. He turned out to be one of the sweetest patients I’ve ever worked with.”
Another patient with a success story was Lister Lane, who in late November wrote an op-ed about his experience at Father Joe’s Villages published in the San Diego Union-Tribune.
In an interview with ADA News, he said initially, he had not seen a dentist in three decades.
“I had so many problems,” Mr. Lane said. “Missing teeth, bad odor coming out of my mouth; people would stare at my mouth when I talked to them. I really thought my life was over.”
He secured an appointment with Parissa Baiera, D.D.S., dental director of the clinic, and received dentures.
“Things are so different now,” he said. “It’s a different world now that I have new teeth. I’m overwhelmed by how much respect Father Joe’s Villages gave me and how much they cared about helping me out.”
Mr. Lane is now a community patient ambassador for Father Joe’s Health Services Advisory Board at the medical clinic and dedicates his time informing the community about the services they can utilize at Father Joe’s Villages.
“I’m a new person living a whole new life,” Mr. Lane said.