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AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the city of Austin navigates its homelessness response strategies, a local dentist is taking a grassroots approach in helping people who previously struggled with homelessness and addiction reintegrate into stable living — one smile at a time.
Dr. David Frank, owner of Walden Dental in Austin, has worked with addiction recovery organization Recovery Unplugged as patients from the center began attending his clinic. Amid ongoing conversations surrounding the homelessness crisis in Austin, he wanted to take a ground level approach to helping people re-enter society and acclimate to stable housing or sober living.
A foundational approach
He and Jason Cabello of Recovery Unplugged began collaborating on providing dental work to people recovering from homelessness, drug addiction and mental health struggles, using Cabello’s recovery network to find people in need of assistance.
While the two were at the gym, they met Chris Murphy, a newly sober man recovering from prescription drug abuse turned into a heroin addiction. Frank said he knew he wanted Murphy to be the first recipient of these cosmetic procedures.
“A number of patients have come through Walden Dental that have been on a journey of recovery, and other folks that have had not great access to dental care,” Frank said. “The signs of the dental problems, still all look the same: the consequences of how people feel about themselves with the shame and embarrassment of not being able to smile and show their true selves, and the impact not only on their psyche, but in the way that they’re able to communicate and express themselves to the outside world.”
Frank said the reality is people’s physical appearance plays into the respect they’re shown from others. For those carrying the physical remnants of addiction, that translates to lost opportunities for employment, relationships, friendships and self-acceptance.
The firsthand impact
Murphy’s addiction began with a painkiller prescription after breaking his jaw at age 17. Fast forward a decade, Murphy was standing in nothing more than a t-shirt on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City when he had plans to take his own life.
After prescription drug abuse turned into years of heroin addiction, he was tired of fighting against the grip substance abuse had taken on his life.
As he stood on the wooden planks, his phone buzzed with a notification for a new “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast episode. The subject? Justin Wren, a mixed martial arts fighter who was now in recovery but had long struggled with addiction and suicidal ideation.
Listening to the podcast, Murphy stepped down from the bridge and reached out to Wren on Instagram with the message “you saved my life.” He moved to Austin and then — as fate would have it — met Wren in a gym months later.
“I was about 20-days sober and he walked past me and I was drenched in sweat. And I ran up to him and I kept saying ‘I’m the guy [from the Brooklyn Bridge],’” Murphy recounted. “He gave me a big hug and asked to take a picture with me and said ‘you’re still here. You’re a champion.’”
Years of drug use and an assault in New York City left Murphy with only five teeth in his mouth. As he re-entered sobriety and began applying for jobs, the physical remnants of years of addiction acted as a barrier toward employment, he said.
Now, after a 20-hour cosmetic procedure and debuting his new set of teeth, Murphy went from zero employment prospects to receiving multiple job offers. He now works as an assistant manager at his sober house and works with Wren on the MMA fighter’s podcast, “Overcome.”
“It’s not about asking for a handout. I needed a hand up,” Murphy said. “It’s not lost on me, the irony that I’m working on the ‘Overcome’ podcast from the man who helped set me up to being able to overcome.”
Carrying the momentum forward
Following Murphy’s procedure, Paul Alford is next in line to receive a new set of teeth. He’s in recovery from drug addiction and works as a musician and a community organizer.
The misconceptions surrounding addiction are far and wide, he said; the causes of addiction are multifaceted and require a more nuanced approach, he added.
“I’m an open book about my challenges with addiction and also with my victories and recovery, ’cause addiction is isolation and the opposite of that is recovery, which equals community,” he said. “Which you’re seeing right here.”
For people like Cabello, who work in addiction recovery nonprofit work and come from lived experience, he said they are the ones who are able to make the most proactive changes in public discourse and recovery services. Finding people like Dr. Frank with the resources and capacity to take those efforts further is how to address these crises from the ground up.
“It’s just like all these chance encounters when people want to do good. They want to do good things,” he said. “They want to help people. They want to better the community.”
These efforts have expanded beyond Frank’s dental practice into surrounding businesses. Roger McMahon, owner of Resurrection Tattoo in Austin, just helped cover up prison tattoos of former gang member Jason Adams.
Adams, who is in recovery from drug addiction, spent 15 years in a gang and received gang-related and racist tattoos. As he continues his sobriety and time outside prison, he wanted to make amends for his former mistakes and carry his life forward.
“He’s just like a dude trying to get his life back together,” McMahon said. “So it just seemed like an easy thing to maybe help someone on a very important journey.”
Recovery Unplugged and Frank’s efforts, alongside Murphy’s recovery journey, will be featured in an episode of Wren’s upcoming docu-series, “The Overcomer Series.” The multi-episode series will follow Wren’s life journey and personal addiction recovery, as well as address mental health struggles and bullying.