A smile is the beauty of the soul, someone once said. But what happens when it is also the painful revelation of a hard life lived?
Having been in the spotlight since coming out of homelessness, with media interviews on a weekly basis, and having recently started a job that sees me in the company of and conversing with the general public virtually all day, every day, in a high-powered environment, I have become more and more aware and uncomfortable about my seriously damaged teeth.
A smile is a universal conversation, introducing us to the world without uttering a word.
But what happens when decay spreads from the outside in when the foods we must eat to stay alive are killing us internally? What happens when poor oral hygiene winds up in the top 10 most dire issues homeless people must endure?
At the root of most dental diseases is a poor diet. This poses a unique challenge to those living on the streets since they often have little or no choice regarding the types of food they consume.
If one is on the streets and not getting a very good diet, that’s going to be reflected in one’s teeth. Diet plays an extremely important role in the health of gums and teeth. Very specifically, foods that are high in carbohydrates contain a large amount of sugar and, consequently, bacteria, which cause gum disease. Dental decay thrives in those types of environments.
Add to this already huge challenge the eroding effect that the drugs and alcohol we consume when living on the streets – in order to try to avoid hopeless despair – and our teeth and gums are rendered serious health hazards.
Sadly, most homeless people are badly in need of dental care. If the need continues to remain unfulfilled and their teeth fall out or decay, then they cannot chew and masticate their food in such a way that they are going to get the maximum nourishment out of it. So, it’s a vicious cycle.
Many necessary and basic dental procedures are categorised as “cosmetic” when, in reality, poor oral health can wreak havoc on the body and immune system.
Dental care is among the most significant unfilled needs of those experiencing homelessness. Adults experiencing homelessness are, on average, 20 times more likely to be stricken with oral health issues than the general population, and it has been found that 96% require dental care that they are not receiving.
Oral health has something to do with systemic health. There are many life-threatening diseases like cardiovascular and pulmonary disease, as well as diabetes, that are associated with dental disease, and so poor dental health equals poor general health.
Unfortunately, the lack of a broad smile goes further than just poor health. It also plays a major role in the lack of self-esteem, an often overlooked but valuable component of mental health issues.
We greet each other with a smile. A smile is often the entry point to each relationship we cultivate. It’s probably the first thing that somebody notices when they meet somebody else. And so, without one, we are much less likely to be accepted in society and therefore also less likely to become gainfully employed.
As a result, an individual who has poor dental care and has no teeth, or has only the remains of teeth, is more likely going to be protective by keeping a hand over their mouth and not smiling. I find myself, at times these days, yearning for a Michael Jackson-like fashionable resurgence of the Covid mask.
What many fail to realise is that these gestures we feel we have to perform to hide our socially inept dentures hurt us in social circumstances and can further hinder a homeless person’s chances of bouncing back.
People experiencing homelessness face huge obstacles when they attempt to reintegrate or are applying for jobs. Most of the rejection they have to face daily is based purely on an aspect that they had little or no control over.
In this vicious cycle, the more one loses, the less one has to gain.
* Carlos Mesquita.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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