ATLANTA — Bryan Flournoy sits in a downtown church, sipping coffee and taking inventory of his life: He’s 33 and homeless. He’s a stranger in Atlanta, where a bus dropped him off from California last month. He needs a place to live, and he needs it yesterday.
In a few minutes, he’ll be hoofing across the city, looking for work.
For now, his feet soak in hot water as a preacher buffs them with a pumice stone.
Every Monday afternoon for the last year, the Rev. Bob Book and his wife, Holly, have transformed the Church of the Common Ground into a spa for the homeless. They scrub the feet of the city’s forgotten, mirroring the act of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
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The service, repeated at clinics and churches elsewhere, isn’t simply symbolic — it helps stave off foot infections, which affect the homeless disproportionately and can lead to more serious health problems. Men and women also leave with polished dogs and a shot of self-esteem that volunteers hope can help them turn their lives around.
Book says the ritual is patterned after services practiced by many Christian congregations leading up to Easter. He takes it further with about 35 homeless men and women each week: Five at a time, they get a soak, pumice, nail trim, massage and a fresh pair of socks. Volunteers wearing gloves provide apricot scrub, ointments, air freshener for shoes, nail polish and even insoles.
The church doesn’t tackle medical issues; Book tells people with serious foot conditions to come back when there’s a doctor volunteering time at the church.
“The worst ongoing thing is the fungus that goes on with people’s feet. It eats away and destroys the toenails and just makes it very hard for people to walk,” says Book, who once saw a black man whose feet were white from days in soggy shoes.
That was almost certainly trench foot, a common homeless condition that can lead to bacterial infection, says Dr. Jessie Gaeta, who practices internal medicine with Boston Health Care for the Homeless, which has operated a foot clinic for 25 years. Similar clinics run by religious groups and medical practices have popped up in Nashville, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla., among other cities.
The American Podiatric Medical Association estimates more than 75 percent of Americans have foot pain, with infections four times more frequent in homeless people.
“It’s much more than cosmetic. These are really functional problems,” said Gaeta, who has seen everything from fungal infections to maggot infestation. Foot problems often exacerbate other health issues in the homeless.
“Even a simple callus or blister in a diabetic patient is likely to become infected and can result in necrosis, and result in the need for amputation,” she says.
Burly but gentle, Book massages Pamela Parks’ feet on a recent Monday. He doesn’t push religion. If visitors take an interest — commenting on a painting of Jesus washing feet, for instance — he may talk about his faith. And he always says a silent prayer over the feet, for their owners.
“Usually, the last thing I include is that they find their way to Christ,” he says.
Between bites of a peanut butter-and-cookie snack, Parks explains her struggle with job loss, crack addiction and a bad relationship.
“Once he hurt me, I just gave up,” she says.
She now sleeps in an abandoned house and makes money where she can, which lately means selling Barack Obama pens and calendars along a highway. It keeps her on her feet.
“Sometimes I walk two or three days because I’m scared to go home,” she says before slipping on her boots.
When it’s Anthony Barnes’ turn, volunteer Rick Hutchison slathers a mentholated ointment on Barnes’ tired feet.
“Everybody’s got their own technique,” he says. “And everybody’s got their own challenge.”
Two years ago, Hutchison says, he was “drinking and drugging.” He bounced through Kentucky, California and New York before landing in a recovery center across the street from Common Ground. Eventually, he straightened up and began volunteering. He worries about men drifting like he was, and hopes sprucing up their feet motivates them to fix up their lives, too.
Barnes had a job at a car parts factory and his own home, but lost both in October. Finding a new job has been tough because he has a felony record.
In this moment, though, as he slides his feet into saddle shoes, he feels rejuvenated.
“Having my feet (done) gives me a little patience,” Barnes says, “to keep walking.”