Dr. Mark Schufman opted out of a Park Avenue dental practice and made a career treating homeless and poor people who have missing and rotting teeth that are often roadblocks to employment and mental health recovery.
"I like these people," he said. He heads the only dental clinic inside a city shelter and said the homeless "are nice people who have issues but don't bring them to you. They have been through a lot and are just happy to be getting help."
Schufman, 64, treats about 14 patients a day. So far this year he has clocked 2,449 visits and provided 300 sets of dentures.
Funded and operated by Project Renewal, a nonprofit organization that provides shelter, job training, affordable housing, medical and mental health care services, and drug and alcohol treatment. The dental clinic is part of Project Renewal's health services program that is funded by a $2.5 million federal grant. About 55 percent of its patients are Medicaid recipients.
Some of Schufman's patients have developed "grouchy" facial expressions from years of covering their mouths to hide their bad teeth, the dentist said. After receiving treatment, these patients must learn how to smile again, face people and stop covering their mouths with their hands, he said.
Robert Simmons, 53, of Brooklyn, who says he suffers from mental illness, lives at the Fort Washington Men's Shelter in Washington Heights. Two years ago, his dentures were stolen. "I guess someone really needed them," said Simmons, giving a coy smile that lit up his blue eyes.
Simmons said he could not chew and ate only soft foods for more than a year. As a child, he said, his parents didn't take him to the dentist and poor dental care was a lifelong health obstacle. After he chipped a tooth when he "ran into a mailbox," he said, cavities "just rotted my teeth. Little by little, I started losing my teeth."
When Simmons came to the clinic about a year ago he was soothed hearing recorded sounds of chirping birds that played in Schufman's dental office. "The sound of the birds relaxed me. My concerns about my homelessness were forgotten. I was actually being treated like a human being."
Being able to replace his two front teeth within days kept Gérard Duré, 47, from losing his livelihood as a Manhattan hairdresser and makeup artist. He knocked out his teeth when he fell onto a sidewalk when drunk, he said. Duré, who said he has been sober and living at the shelter for 11 months, is waiting for an affordable apartment to rent. "People don't know I live in a shelter because I clean up pretty well," Duré said. "Being able to smile has kept me sober."
Mitchell Netburn, Project Renewal president and CEO, said: "People don't realize that one third of the homeless are working. They are just not making enough money to make the rent."