Dentaid explains how it is helping the homeless combat poor oral health and give them a chance to get back on their feet.
Mark* is homeless. For several years he’s slept rough on the streets of southern England.
In addition to his battles with drug and alcohol addiction, Mark suffers from dental problems, which makes it painful for him to eat.
Like many homeless people, Mark faces huge barriers to accessing dental care. But now he’s one of hundreds of homeless and insecurely-housed people receiving treatment thanks to volunteers with the dental charity Dentaid.
Every month Dentaid’s mobile dental unit arrives at the day centre Mark attends. It offers free screening, advice and treatment. This is Mark’s story.
Five years ago, I got punched on both sides of my face and it broke my teeth. I had to go to hospital as my front teeth snapped off. Since then I’ve had problems with my teeth.
I’m not coping with my teeth at all. I tried to go to a dentist but I missed my appointment and now they won’t see me.
I have memory problems so I don’t always remember to go to places. I’m also a wanderer, so I can’t say I’ll be in the same place.
The rest of my teeth are degrading and breaking down. It affects my confidence and hurts when I eat.
I’ve been in temporary accommodation, but there’s trouble and fights and drugs. Now I’m homeless and have been on the streets for five or six months.
ƒI drink to stay warm. I don’t have warm clothes or bedding for the winter – I drink then sleep. I was sleeping on a bench but they took it away.
What I want is a denture so I can feel more confident and some advice to look after the teeth I have left. I think if I felt better about my teeth it would help me with other things.
Dentaid coming here is the only way I’ll ever get to see a dentist.
Problems accessing care for the homeless
Sadly, Mark’s story isn’t unusual.
A survey by the charity Groundswell found that 90% of homeless people had problems with their mouths. And 70% had lost teeth since living on the streets.
Researchers discovered that 63% of homeless people felt self-conscious about their teeth. And 30% were living with persistent dental pain.
‘Homeless people face many barriers to accessing dental care,’ Dentaid CEO, Andy Evans, says.
‘They might feel uncomfortable or embarrassed in a practice waiting room. It could be that their lifestyle makes it hard for them to keep appointments. Or they might feel self-conscious or face other anxieties.
‘There are also practical problems like where they put their belongings if they are living on the streets. How do they register with no address or NHS number. And how the practice communicates with them if they don’t have a phone or email.
‘That’s why we take our mobile units to them.
‘By delivering a dental service at soup kitchens, day centres or night shelters we can be somewhere that they already feel safe and comfortable. Their support workers are on hand to give them extra reassurance if necessary.’
‘Best day of the month’
Volunteer dentist Jane Lelean provides care for homeless and insecurely housed people in Winchester at Dentaid’s monthly clinics at Trinity House day centre.
‘It’s about so much more than dentistry,’ she says. ‘It’s about talking to our patients, taking the time to listen to people who have so many challenges in their lives and then helping them.
‘We are there to reassure and give advice and support as well as dental treatment. That can help them with other aspects of their lives.
‘If we can help with their teeth, they don’t have to speak with their hand over their mouth. They can look people in the eye.
‘I would recommend that anyone who has time available offers to volunteer with Dentaid. I love it – it’s the best day of the month!’
Dentaid now has two mobile units – one in the south of England and one in the north.
COVID-19 exacerbated the problems that many homeless people face in accessing healthcare. Demand for the charity’s services is higher than ever.
In addition to regular clinics in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Yorkshire, the charity will launch new projects for homeless communities in Bristol, East Sussex, Dorset and the north east in 2021.
‘COVID-19 had a huge impact on our work and fundraising programme. But we’re back on the road and next year is looking busier than ever,’ added Andy Evans.
For patients like Roland in Leeds, Dentaid’s clinics treated his dental pain. But, just as importantly, showed how much dentists care.
‘I have a broken tooth and bad teeth that hurt all the time so I need strong pain killers. I tried to get a dentist but was told there’s no dentist I can go to in Leeds.
‘For nine years I lived in a cellar, sleeping on a concrete floor, which made my health very bad. I didn’t have a toothbrush and toothpaste and I don’t have much time to think about my teeth because I don’t have a job or a house or good health and there’s so much going on in my life.
‘But because Dentaid brings its mobile dental unit here, I can have the bad tooth taken out. They can help me which is a very kind thing to do.’
To find out more about volunteering with Dentaid and the charity’s work visit www.dentaid.org or email [email protected].
*Name changed to protect identity.