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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Reason to Smile

April 01 2024
This issue's cover image © Lui Saatchi This issue's cover image © Lui Saatchi

An interview with a community hero working to put shiny, white smiles on people experiencing homelessness in Wolverhampton. By Darren Harvey

If ever there was a Guinness World Record for helping vulnerable adults with their teeth and new dentures, Dave Wheeler must hold it. Dave, the day-centre outreach coordinator for The Solace Community in Wolverhampton, has helped over 60 residents successfully receive restorative dental care and created 600 confirmed appointments.

The most remarkable feat about this is that he deals with some of society’s most vulnerable and underserved people, his clients often experience multiple mental health issues, chaotic lifestyles, complex needs and substance abuse problems. Many residents arrive at The Solace Community having never been to the dentist in their lives. Years of substance abuse, neglect and fear have left many residents with teeth so rotten that the only route is an operation to remove them and fit dentures.

Five years ago, the Homeless Strategy Team of the council made it an urgent priority to address this issue. They sent out an oral hygienist representative to the hostels to book appointments for them and persuade them to attend. However, this had very little success. That is, until Dave Wheeler came along.
Dave explained: “The major hurdle that the hygienist faced was simply persuading them. All their lives, many residents have faced authority figures, such as the police, probation and prison officers dressed in uniform, and an appearance from somebody smartly dressed from the council triggers their fear. Behind their tough facades lies a fear and the idea of facing anaesthesia, operations and pain is often too much for them to face alone.”
Signing up for appointments quickly became a resounding failure. They would either cancel, neglect or refuse to go.

However, Dave’s clever intervention did the trick. “I telephoned the hygienist to meet me so that we could devise a pathway and make this work with commitment and determination.”

Dave, thus, changed the procedure to something much simpler and more effective. He offered four empty time slots on the whiteboard in the reception area for anybody willing to go with the ultimate aim of getting four to five residents to attend per week. No name. No commitment. It was there for anyone who decided at the last minute to attend.

“It was like chipping away at a block of ice,” explained Dave. “The more I worked at addressing their confidence and fears, the more receptive they became.” Dave understands too well the barriers that residents with drug and alcohol addiction face. “My past is my best asset. As I had been an alcoholic for many years, I understood their thoughts, feelings, insecurities and ‘don’t care’ attitude and I quickly started to speak to them on their level. Over time, I gained people’s respect and trust, which is invaluable as they can just be themselves when they talk to me.” He acts as an excellent intermediary between service user and authority.

Having overcome the first hurdle, the sheer panic of going alone was too much for many residents. So, Dave would accompany them and sit next to them whilst in the dentist’s chair, reassuring and calming them throughout the procedure. His friendly face was all they needed. Furthermore, he would fill in some of their paperwork beforehand to cut down the time that they needed to be in the Special Care Dentist surgery.
With these measures in place, slowly it began to take positive effect. Residents started to attend after hearing of so many positive outcomes.
“It was sheer joy being able to see residents eat properly without pain or discomfort. Those fitted with dentures actually smile now, can speak properly and enjoy their food.” 

In fact, The Solace Community has been so instrumental in addressing oral hygiene with vulnerable adults that the procedures have been made a blueprint for other service providers to follow. This pathway has been constantly updated over the past five years to help manage the different residents’ needs.
Having overcome their greatest fear of the dentist, the rest became easy. “I now get residents to visit the opticians. They have developed such an understanding and respect of our client group, that they pay for their transport costs. We have also been involved in developing a pilot scheme with a doctor’s surgery where a doctor attends the hostel once a week.”

So, what is next on the agenda for Dave? “Hair,” he retorted. “There are many trainee hairdressers that don’t have the models to practice their craft. I have the solution. Now, that’s something I can get my teeth into,” he smiled.

  • For local dentistry services, check out the List of services in the centre pages of the magazine.