Homeless Not Toothless, a nonprofit that provides dental services to homeless veterans in Los Angeles, marked its 10,000th day of service October 10.
The nonprofit has provided more than $5 million in services and treated almost 60,000 patients since it was founded by Dr. Jay Grossman over 28 years ago.
Grossman, who served as a dentist in the U.S. Navy, created Homeless Not Toothless almost immediately after he left the service. He said the inspiration came from the location of his West Los Angeles dental practice, which was within walking distance of the Veterans Affairs center where homeless individuals often create camps.
“When I saw people literally asking for food and money and a job or something, I was left with this horrible guilt of walking by and doing nothing versus giving them some money and then, of course, having the concern of whether the money was going to food or drugs and alcohol,” he said.
Grossman said he instead came up with the idea of offering the veterans dental care.
“One day I was reaching into my wallet, and I decided ... I could give them dental care where I’m clear where the work is going—it’s going into their mouths,” he said.
He added that Homeless Not Toothless didn’t start off as a nonprofit. Rather, he simply opened up his practice to treat the veterans.
“(I had) plenty of time on my hands because my practice was not built up,” Grossman said. “I had more empty space than I had patients in the chair, so I just started treating them.”
The nonprofit serves about 15,000 people a year, with more than 500 volunteer dentists, Grossman said.
He added that he also has a rotation in his practice in which fourth-year UCLA dentistry students come through his office to provide care. With this rotation, Grossman said he is able to provide dental care with no labor costs involved and, because he donates his facility, no rent involved.
“If you take labor and rent out of the equation for any business, it suddenly makes it either a very profitable business, or, in my case, it makes it a nonprofit that works on just fantastically high margins,” he said.
Grossman said he is able to average about 8% overhead, which means 92 cents of each dollar is going directly to his two main bills—dental supplies and lab costs.
“It’s multifactorial, right, because the people that need dental care get the help, we’re able to help teach (and) we can show the students kind of one on one how things work, and everyone wins in this sort of situation,” said Dr. George Jaber, who volunteers with the nonprofit.
While Homeless Not Toothless provides full-scope dentistry, including cleanings, fillings and extractions, Jaber said they mostly provide care that doesn’t require a lot of recall for the convenience of the patients and the effectiveness of the situation.
“It really helps those people because there’s absolutely no judgment, there’s no red tape,” he said. “We just get them in, we screen them, we figure out how we can best help and we take care of them.”
Jaber, who handles the surgical side of things, said while working on one of his first patients for the nonprofit, he was able to have a conversation with the patient without them feeling or even realizing that he was performing surgery.
“Everyone was like wow, this has gotten to the point where it’s super relaxing, even for the most … fearful patients,” he said. “And it’s just because we care, we try to make it something that’s easy. And like I said, we take away all judgment and that sort of stuff, because we want them to be able to come back and get the care that they need.”
Dr. Mike Tong first began volunteering with the nonprofit in 2013 after he wrote a spotlight on Grossman. He said as a newer graduate at the time, he wanted to gain perspective from someone who was doing well enough to focus not only on his own profit margins but to better his community.
He added one patient he treated, who was recovering from drug addiction, talked about how the organization and Grossman had turned her life around and allowed her to regain her confidence.
“We were able to hear the story from a patient who came out on the other end of it in a very positive way,” he said. “It’s really something that you don’t get to see that often in this day and age.”
Grossman said he created the program to help people who are interested in bettering themselves—to fix their smile so they can interview and to fix their teeth so they can eat without pain and avoid taking illegal drugs for pain management.
One patient named John, who he became particularly close with, entered the program with six months of sobriety.
“He and I ended up becoming very friendly,” Grossman said. “It was during an age where my kids were still at the house—they still call him Uncle John right now—and he came in and did some work. And we talked about what got him into the situation that he was in, which was drug addiction.”
John’s ex-wife had taken their then-2-year-old son away after John, who was working construction 20 hours a day, started using drugs to get more hours into the day to make more money, Grossman said.
“As he says it, his life was out of balance,” Grossman said.
During the time John was working for them, Grossman was able to locate John’s ex-wife and son, who was now 17 years old.
“I was able to get the mother to allow, under my wife and my supervision, to have their 17-year-old son come out, and I flew him out to surprise John, and was able to reunite them,” he said. “And boy, was that a tearful moment. I mean, it was just extraordinary.”
Grossman said these kinds of stories invigorate him and give him the energy to keep putting countless hours and endless funds toward the nonprofit.
“It’s just an extraordinary outcome that you would not expect from fixing somebody’s toothache,” he said.