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Homeless say 'aaah' (happily) to new Lansing dental clinic

woman near dental equipment
Kevin Lavery
The Volunteers of America's Michelle Adams stands in one of the nearly finished dental exam rooms.

A new service is starting Tuesday to help the homeless in mid-Michigan.  The Volunteers of America is opening a dental clinic at its downtown Lansing shelter.

Diana Ramey is giving her mouth a Valentine’s Day treat.

But it won’t be a piece of candy.  

She once lost a tooth cap to a piece of caramel, and for a while now, dental care has been out of her reach.  But ever since she learned the Volunteers of America was planning to open an on-site dental clinic at its downtown Lansing homeless shelter, Ramey hasn’t stopped smiling.

“I need work really bad, and I cannot wait,” Ramey explains.  “I’m going to be the first to sign up.  I’ll probably be pushed aside, though...but I’m still going to muzzle through.”

Before she became homeless, Ramey maintained her oral health.  But when times got tough, trips to the dentist became a thing of the past.  And she’s not alone.  Ramey knows many people who can’t afford dental care and have no insurance.

“When I became homeless, there comes the fact that it’s neglect,” she says.  “There’s no way of getting there; you don’t have the resources anymore.  And now that the people are making that available for us, means the world.”

No one's going to be turned away from this clinic. This clinic is for everybody who needs it.


The Delta Dental Foundation provided more than $300,000 to build the new clinic in space adjoining the Sparrow medical clinic, which opened at the VOA site in March 2014.  

The concept of a joint medical-dental center located inside a homeless shelter is unique in mid-Michigan.  

“It really is one of the first of its kind,” says Delta Dental communications director Terri Battaglieri.  “It was the opportunity for us to do our part to provide seamless care to those who needed it.”


The clinic will take Medicaid payments and the Healthy Michigan Plan.  Battaglieri says while there are many good safety net clinics throughout the state that accept Medicaid, low reimbursement rates make it difficult for health care providers to make a living helping people most in need.   Delta Dental actively supports those facilities.  Battaglieri is confident the VOA clinic will work in Lansing.  

“No one’s going to be turned away from this clinic,” she says.  “This clinic is for everybody who needs it.”

Down the hall, the clinic is taking shape.  The big hardware is in -- reclining chairs, X-ray machines and the like.  Dental assistant LaKenya Dean is unsealing cardboard boxes and stocking cabinets.  She’s worked with the homeless before, but not as a dental care provider.  

“So, it’s new for me, definitely,” Dean says.  “But I’m excited.  A lot of people have waited their whole life for this, because dental care is very expensive.  So, to have a clinic that’s inexpensive, maybe even free, is very exciting and very helpful to people.”

The one-stop shop model at the shelter isn’t just designed for convenience.  Good oral health is a key indicator of a person’s overall physical health.  Delta Dental’s Terri Battaglieri says a basic head, neck and mouth exam can help dentists detect 120 different signs of disease.

“Dentists can detect diabetes,” Battaglieri notes.  “They can detect heart disease.  They can detect oral cancer, which is one of the most expensive cancers in the country to treat, and people who smoke or use chewing tobacco are extremely susceptible to that.”


The dental clinic hopes to serve at least 2,000 people a year.  But the VOA and Delta Dental are looking beyond mere patient volume.  Battaglieri believes providing dental care for homeless patients is a long-term investment in their future.

“If we can do something to make people smile, to mainstream them back into society, to help them get a job so that they can have a place to live...then I’ll know that we’ve been successful.”

Kevin Lavery is a general assignment reporter and occasional local host for Morning Edition and All Things considered.
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