I passed a homeless man at the start of the year and asked if he wanted a hot drink to keep him warm – it was February and bitterly cold. Much to my surprise he asked for a glass of milk and, when he explained why, it broke my heart.
In the middle of winter, sitting in the freezing cold, this man wanted a cold glass of milk instead of a warming cup of tea or coffee because his teeth were causing him so much pain. When someone is living hand-to-mouth, they’re not going to spend precious money on something like a toothbrush or tube of toothpaste – and even if they could, where would they clean their teeth?
Daniel Casey knows the feeling all too well. He slept on the streets for eight months before moving into hostels and was suffering badly with toothache. Thankfully he was helped by a team of kindhearted dentists who have been devoting their spare time to providing free dental work for those who can’t usually access it – from the homeless to those fleeing domestic abuse.
Casey went to one of their mobile units, where he had three teeth removed and a few fillings put in. “I would never go to a dentist but when the dentist came here on the bus I knew I had to see her,” he said before adding he was “over the moon” that he would no longer have to endure his agonising toothache.
The state of a person’s teeth can dramatically impact their health. Gum disease, for example, has been linked to an increased risk of stroke, diabetes and heart disease. It’s crucial to maintain good dental hygiene but for people living on the streets it’s virtually impossible.
Nafiza Jamil is a volunteer dentist who helps out at both The Crypt in Leeds, which provides emergency accommodation for people sleeping rough, and a soup kitchen in York.
Jamil, who lives in Lancashire, is a full-time self-employed dentist. She books a day off every six weeks or so to work for free. Joining her each time is a dental nurse, Naomi, from charity Dentaid (who coordinates everything), as well as a hygienist or a second dental nurse.
At the York soup kitchen, which tends to run in the evenings for a couple of hours, Jamil will typically see five or six patients. At The Crypt, which is a day shift, she’ll see 10 to 15.
Jamil sees a lot of patients with drug or alcohol problems, who struggle to get clean because of tooth problems – they’re trapped in a vicious cycle, topping up to numb the pain. These people often have “significant dental neglect” and will need multiple tooth extractions or treatment for infections.
“It’s something that’s really simple, they just need some dental treatment, and then they can get on the path to recovery,” she explains.
James Walmsley has also been plagued by toothache for as long as he can remember. When he was living in a Salisbury hostel he was treated by the volunteer dentists. After treatment, he exclaimed: “I’ve had a filling and if I get my teeth sorted, hopefully I’ll smile more.”
Patients like James are always so grateful for the treatment provided, reports Jamil. “Something small like just giving them a little clean and a sample of toothpaste, they behave as if I’ve given them the moon,” she says.
“When you see patients in normal life or even just generally, people aren’t very grateful for what they’ve got; people complain about things. But when I see a patient and they’re so happy just from having a scale and polish and a tube of toothpaste, it puts things into perspective for me.”
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