In Chicago, pedicures for the homeless

CHICAGO — His feet had been soaking for several minutes when Elias Aguilar, watching with envy as others got their toenails clipped and corns scraped, started filing away at his own rough heels. But as soon as someone took over for him, Aguilar sat back to enjoy the pampering.

This wasn't a fancy spa for the well-to-do. Aguilar, like everyone else here, spends his nights in shelters or on the streets, lining up for free meals wherever he can find them. But in this small room off the rectory at the St. Vincent de Paul Church, the homeless and uninsured assemble twice a week to talk about their problems, get some new socks or insoles and have their feet washed and rubbed.

"We're street people," said Aguilar, 43, a regular. "We walk around all day, and it feels good to have them do your feet. People pay a lot of money for a pedicure."

No money, however, exchanges hands at this clinic, which has been operating for a little more than a year at St. Vincent, on the edge of the DePaul University campus.

It operates with a small university grant and donations secured by Lin Drury, associate nursing professor at DePaul, who also uses the clinic as a lab for her students. Drury envisions someday a full-scale clinic to serve the homeless and uninsured. She decided to focus first on patients' feet because walking is the primary means of transportation for the homeless, who often wear ill-fitting shoes.

"Foot care is just the thing that brings people in the door," she said. "It was a way to get to know them and to get them to trust us. It usually takes about three sessions of foot care to get people to tell us a little bit of something."

The clinic serves as many as 40 people a day, with each patient receiving a pair of socks and a blood-pressure test. Nearly everyone, Drury said, is hypertensive. Other common problems include skin infections, gastrointestinal ailments and, of course, the discomfort of being too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. Many have mental problems.

"I've identified people who have diabetes and vascular disease," Drury said. "When someone comes in with huge feet and ankles, that kind of swelling is symptomatic of serious health problems."

Some of these problems are referred to St. Joseph Hospital, which has agreed to pay most of the cost of outpatient care for patients from the clinic. Emergency needs are referred to Stroger County Hospital, formerly known as Cook County Hospital.

When Drury approached officials at St. Vincent with her proposal, they jumped at the chance. Already, the church sponsors a free breakfast program every day of the year. It also distributes public-transportation vouchers, hygiene kits and warm clothing.

"I just thought it was wonderful," said Sister Marie Orf, who runs St. Vincent's outreach programs for the poor. "I knew a couple of men with frostbite who lost toes. I know their feet take a real beating." The religious implications were not lost on her either.

"I can't think of anything more loving than to wash someone's feet... ," Orf said. "It's being a loving presence to them and showing them that somebody cares."