BRADENTON — Dental hygiene wouldn’t seem to be at the top of a homeless person’s list of priorities.
That is until the searing pain of a toothache distracts from attempts to make a better life, or an unattractive smile derails a promising job interview.
That’s why retired Manatee County dentist James Little and the Community Coalition on Homelessness have opened a free dental clinic at the One Stop Center.
“You can’t isolate one part of the body,” said Little, a retired dentist who donates his services and was instrumental in setting up the clinic. “If one part of the body is unhealthy, the person is unhealthy. Dental services improve their health, and if we can restore form and function, it helps make them a more integral part of society.”
The clinic offers free dental services to those who meet income and residency requirements. Prospective patients must earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level and live in Manatee County.
Little, who retired in 2008 after a 33-year career in Manatee County, said he and a few of his colleagues perform “triage dentistry,” with the first priority to alleviate pain. Patients can get extractions and bridgework along with teeth cleaning and help with hygiene.
Some patients require extensive procedures.
“I ask people when they come in, how long it’s been since they’ve been to a dentist. They all say five years or more, and one guy said he’d never been to a dentist,” Little said.
The One Stop Center opened in March at 701 17th Ave. W. in the former Mather Furniture Store building. Its aim is to bring health services, social services, a soup kitchen, clothing and employment services for the homeless under one roof.
The dental program, which opened in early August, is the first part of the medical wing to begin operation. Adell Erozer, the coalition’s executive director, hopes the remainder of the health services will begin by mid-October.
“There’s such a huge demand for dentistry, especially among the homeless population,” Erozer said. “Helping them with these basic medical needs — giving them a good appearance and giving them a chance to get a job and improve their attitudes about themselves — is important.”
Little, who staffs the clinic from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, and Erozer recruited help and equipment for the dental clinic by speaking before the Manatee Dental Society and visiting area dentists.
Local dentists Susan Souffront, Susan Sheehan, David Leslie, George Castro and Joe Gaeta are donating their time to staff the clinic on a rotating basis for half-days Wednesdays and Fridays. Dentists Veronica Thompson, Steven Tinsworth and Terry Alford helped out with equipment.
Little consulted with the coalition as the One Stop Resource Center building was being remodeled, offering advice about how to set up the treatment areas and run the air and water lines.
“The community has been very good to me, and I’ve always looked for a way to give back,” Little said. “Fixing teeth is what I do best, so that’s what I’ll do.”
Said Erozer of Little, “We wouldn’t be able to do this without his help.”
The coalition received a grant from the Blue Foundation for a Healthy Florida to pay the salaries of a clinic coordinator and a dental assistant along with some supplies. That money should keep the clinic going for about a year, Erozer said. After that, the coalition hopes to secure Healthcare for the Homeless funding through Manatee County Rural Health Services, which also has a dental clinic.
Little said he is seeking a dental hygienist to donate time to help with teeth cleaning and gum treatments.
Call the clinic at (941) 567-6156 to set up a patient screening or to make a donation of time or services.