Volunteers Help Arizona Homeless Find Stability — One Tooth At A Time
In the past decade, the U.S. Labor Department reports Arizona's unemployment rate has dropped by nearly half, now hovering near 5 percent.
Meanwhile, the national Housing and Urban Development Point-In-Time (PIT) Count showed Arizona's homeless rate grew by nearly 12 percent between 2017 and 2018.
The lack of affordable housing and health care often tip at-risk people fully into homelessness, and if they are missing teeth or have an imperfect smile, their chance of finding a job is significantly impacted, according the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Kris Volcheck with Brighter Way Institute saw the corollary decades ago before he opened his first clinic in 2001 at Central Arizona Shelter Services on 13th and Madison streets.
As patients with extreme dental problems visited his office, medical teams began volunteering their time to help with complex cases.
"We have doctors flying in from across the country to work on our homeless," Volcheck said with gratitude for his colleagues, but also for the volunteers who are patients who return to assist. "A lot of them are ex-homeless and a lot of them are veterans."
Brenda Gamez is a current patient and a veteran who was once homeless. She knew about Volcheck's clinic when she was struck by a car while riding her motorcycle.
"Somebody T-boned me on the way to work. Took my leg off," she said, remembering how the crash rattled her body from head to toe. She said "everything started loosening up," including her teeth.
Bill McGowan, another patient, also fell into homelessness after serving in the Army.
"They almost didn't let me leave the boot camp because my teeth were so messed up," he said while sitting in the Brighter Ways waiting room.
"This is the first time in my life I can say I love me. It's weird. I couldn't say it before."
— Bill McGowan
Volcheck estimates 93 percent of veterans do not receive dental care. In most cases, he finds veterans coming out of service have the most damage.
"We do veneers, we do crowns and, if they're missing teeth, we do implants," he said. "We will do everything to get them back" to having healthy teeth.
For cases requiring dental implants, the cost can run as high as $50,000 if the procedure is performed elsewhere. Getting the services for free, Volcheck said, "to the homeless and our veterans especially, they feel like they've won the lottery."
Since the first clinic opened nearly 20 years ago, Volcheck and his team have seen more than 100,000 homeless or at-risk patients.
"We look for the neediest populations," he said. "I spent six years on the street working with the homeless and that really helped me immerse myself before I opened this clinic."
Since then, he's diversified, opening several other offices, including children's pediatric-dentistry units on the Valley's west side and in Queen Creek.
"Some of our kids haven't seen a doctor or dentist for years. So, for some kids, we have to crown every tooth in their mouth," said Volcheck.
After 14 difficult months, Gamez is getting back on her feet, and back to the clinic for a follow up visit.
"I had 12 teeth and they pulled them out. I just got my dentures actually two weeks ago and I'm still trying to learn how to use them," she said.
Waiting in the foyer of the clinic, McGowan has found his confidence and said he's looking forward to an improved social life.
"Before, when I'd see a pretty lady, and I wanted to talk to her I'd [think], 'Ah, man she's going to see my grill." He said he'd hesitate, but now he said smiling, "alright I'm there."
He credited the newfound ability to smile confidently for helping him land a full-time civilian job and receive a bank loan to buy a house.
"This is the first time in my life I can say I love me. It's weird. I couldn't say it before," he said.
Looking ahead at the clinics growth since 2001, Volcheck said, "I don't know where we're going next. It'll present itself and it will be one of the neediest populations, and we'll immerse ourselves and become part of that community."