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August 10, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Our Town: For want of some teeth Our Town: For want of some teeth (August 10, 2005)

by Don Kazak

Herb Freeman was punched in his mouth eight years ago. He was living on the street and never saw the punch coming -- from another homeless guy. He lost a tooth.

The loss of one tooth led to the eventual loss of four others. It hasn't helped that Freeman had been homeless from 1977 or so until he moved into the Palo Alto Hotel last December. He was assisted by the Catholic Charities Navigator program that puts people in residential hotels as a first step in putting their lives back together.

For Freeman, though, the gap in the front of his month is an embarrassment. He is self-conscious of it, and it doesn't reflect well in job interviews.

Freeman, 54, is a burly ex-Marine who grew up in Redwood City.

"If I had my own teeth, I'd be gone," Freeman said. "I'd be making money and wouldn't have to ask anyone for help."

"He needs crowns, root canals and (partial) bridges to keep the teeth he has," Chana Pederson of Catholic Charities, Freeman's caseworker, said of his overall dental condition. But she can't find any program in the county to do that work.

The Veterans Affairs Health Care System has a policy of "clean them and yank them," and doesn't do restorative dentistry, Pederson said.

The policy reserves restorative dentistry "for those with a service-connected dental disability or those who are 100 percent service connected for any disability."

And other non-VA health care programs for the poor don't do restorative dentistry.

"For some reason, this is a gap, and no one is noticing," Pederson said.

The problem is crowns and bridges are very expensive.

Missing teeth are what Pederson calls "the stigmata of homelessness."

"Dental work is one of the biggest needs in the homeless community," said Brooke Scharnke, regional director of InnVision, which will operates the homeless drop-in center in Palo Alto. "It's been something we've been actively pursuing for four or five years" as InnVision and Urban Ministry has operated the current, informal drop-in center at the Red Cross building.

Scharnke said a few dentists will do pro-bono work, "but there is no large-scale solution."

A survey of Palo Alto homeless last fall showed that 34 percent report having dental disease. That can affect eating and nutrition, which can lead to weight loss and other health problems, Pederson said.

Sometimes the problems are interrelated. The same survey revealed that 46 percent of local homeless people suffer from depression. They think things won't change for them, Pederson said.

"I can compete with anyone out there," Freeman said. "But I can't compete with this," putting his hand in front of his mouth to hide his missing teeth. The problem isn't just how he looks but he inadvertently spits when he talks.

When he was discharged from the Marines in 1971 , Freeman thought he would work in the communications industry because he had worked as a communications specialist in the service. But he couldn't get that kind of work.

"I don't understand why I wasn't hired," he said.

He ended up working a variety of short-term jobs, including after he became homeless and was "getting by." But that punch in the mouth eight years ago was a turning point.

"I'm smart enough to do my own thing," Freeman said. "But I reached a point where I can't go any further."

He now is one of the workers in bright yellow shirts who are part of the Streetsteam program, cleaning up debris from downtown streets for $5 an hour in food vouchers.

`"He's one of the two hardest-working people in the program," Pederson said.

Freeman is off the streets for now, living in the Palo Alto Hotel with others who had been homeless, thanks to the Catholic Charities Navigator program. Pederson also is case manager for formerly homeless now at the Palo Alto and Barker hotels.

It's a first step. "Research has found that once people have housing, other things settle down for them and they decide what they need," she said.

Freeman has already answered the question of what he needs next -- front teeth.

Senior Staff Writer Don Kazak can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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