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New dental program provides free care for homeless, uninsured

There’s a new free dental clinic in the city of Syracuse, attached to the Amaus Health Services clinic at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Syracuse. The idea is to offer basic dental care to the homeless and people who have no dental insurance.

The first patient is a Syracuse man named Barry. He says his mouth is a mess after years of neglect.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO
The dental office is equipped for simple procedures like extractions and fillings.

"Can you imagine some of those cities in Europe after being bombed by the Allies?" he said. "That’s kind of what my teeth look like -- how the South Bronx looked in the '70s. It’s bad, and it’s my problem. My fault."

Enter Dr. David Dasher, a retired dentist who most recently worked at the Syracuse Community Health Center.

“I’m Dr. Dasher, why don’t you come in and get paperwork filled out and we’ll figure out where you are and where you want to go,” he said.

The clinic is a remade office that is attached to the cathedral, and it fronts on South Warren Street. It’s simple, but well equipped, with a basic blue dental chair, sterilizer, hand held X-ray machine and portable drill, all donated or purchased with the help of a Community Foundation grant.

“And the last time you saw a dentist, can you remember the last time that was?" Dasher asked.

"Fifteen years ago," Barry explained.

And that’s the need for this clinic in a nutshell. These are the kind of patients who haven’t seen a dentist in years, often decades. They often wait until a dental emergency takes them to an emergency room, which can’t really handle the root problem. That’s who Dasher would like to see.

“We want those people who could easily fall through the cracks; who’ve chronically neglected their dental health," Dasher said. "And there are many of those.”

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO
The dentist's office is partnering with Amaus Health Services to help homeless people and the uninsured.

The other reason Dasher thinks this downtown clinic will thrive is simply a matter of demographics. There just aren’t that many dentists practicing in the city.

“The ratio of dentists to patients is not good," Dasher explained. "It’s below the national average. That’s not true for Onondaga County. Onondaga County is well represented as far as dentists are concerned. So here we are in downtown Syracuse, and there are a lot of 14201, 14202, 14203 area zip codes that are under-represented. And we’re trying to be where the patient needs are.”

One of Barry’s big issues, is missing front teeth.

"Those missing teeth in the front, fixing those are not part of our services,” Dasher said.

Dasher and volunteer hygienist Marylin Cleary will only take care of cleanings, fillings and extractions.

"Some of the patients will have needs that are beyond our scope of care," Dasher said. "We will have to tell them that; if they need crowns or bridges, we are never going to be into that."

"Maybe we could send them where we could get these services," Cleary added. "There’s the Saint Joe’s clinic, the Upstate Clinic."

Dasher is one of three dentists volunteering now, and another is expected to come on board next year. There are also two volunteer hygienists. They are hoping to be open three days a week, including Saturdays. They are partnering with Amaus Health Services as well as soup kitchens and other social services organizations to get the word out.

Ultimately, Dasher is confident the single blue chair will be filled more days than not.

"And hopefully they’ll be appreciative of what they get," Dasher said. "And maybe if they just brush their teeth once in a while, we will have helped them. "

Cleary added, "They’re certainly better off than the day before they came in."

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.