Mercer Island Dentist Treats Homeless Kids

MERCER ISLAND - Bob Faine's mother has never liked to see anyone go hungry. Hobos would often gather around her home in St. Paul, Minn., when Faine was a little boy.

Now Faine is a dentist with a private practice on Mercer Island and he doesn't like to see anyone suffer from dental pain or disease. That's why he volunteers his time checking the teeth of homeless children in Seattle.

Working with the Atlantic Street Shelter in Seattle's Rainier Valley, which operates several schools for homeless children, Faine periodically drops in to check on the younger children. Permanent teeth begin to come in at about age 6, which makes those years the most critical, he says. He screens the children at the school to catch early problems - which can make a big difference.

"You can't let them hurt," Faine says. "They should not be in pain." Going through life with scars on their gums from disease or blackened teeth and toothaches only makes life tougher for children, he has observed.

"When I see a nice healthy mouth on these kids who have nothing, I figure then they have a chance," he says. On his visits, Faine doesn't have the sterile conditions to provide extensive care, and urges the children with more serious problems to visit a clinic.

Before opening his practice on Mercer Island, most of Faine's career had been in the public-health sector on the city, state and federal levels. He has always pushed for preventive dentistry and

fluoridation. In 1976 he helped fight for the fluoridation of Washington's water.

And he believes that fluoridation is what's responsible for keeping the cavity count low in the homeless children he's examined - many of whom don't brush regularly or even own a toothbrush.

"I expected to find horrible teeth, and I was pleasantly surprised," Faine says. "Most of them were pretty good. I was pretty impressed by the effects of fluoride."

Only 20 percent of the kids had serious problems, which matched the national average. Their teeth could be even better if they brushed regularly, Faine says. Some are only exposed to fluoride by the water.

Faine first decided to help disadvantaged children last February after he heard about the need for toothpaste and toothbrushes among the homeless. Faine began by calling companies. Some donated products. Some sold supplies. While gathering supplies the idea came to him:

"Instead of going to dump these supplies, I thought, `Why not go look at the kids?' "

Health care is usually one of the last priorities when a family is searching for a home, notes Robert Mann, program coordinator with the Atlantic Street Center.

"A lot of homeless kids don't get to see dentists and doctors on a regular basis," Mann says.

Faine was the first dentist to offer his help to the school, - and it affected Mann's own preconceptions about Mercer Islanders.

"I used to have the impression that it was a wealthy place that kept to itself, unconcerned about what is going on around it," Mann said. "Actually we've gotten a lot of support from people in Mercer Island."

Faine plans to return to the shelter children again when school begins next month; his regular job is four days a week.