“O-22… O-22. We need a winner, guys!”
Amid the crowd of chattering people, no one seems to be able to complete their row to win the round of bingo.
The scene is familiar for a nursing home or a senior center, but this is a church fellowship hall, and these people aren’t elderly invalids or caregivers.
They are homeless, and they are taking advantage of free health screenings, food, haircuts and more at Athens’ first Health Day for the Homeless, also known as Athens Project Homeless Connect.
The event, held earlier this month, came from UGA student Wendy Fujita’s desire to help those less fortunate after she went on mission trips to Central America.
“I went to Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and we did medical missions there,” she said. “I always wanted to go back, but then I realized that there was a real need here (in Athens).”
After making some phone calls, she found out about a health day for the homeless in Atlanta last year put on by Lazarus Ministries, an organization geared towards helping homeless people. She decided to try to bring a similar event to Athens.
The Northeast Georgia Homeless Coalition has a resource fair for the homeless every spring in Athens, but that event is “not so much about personal relationships.”
“We basically partnered up with them,” said Fujita.
An estimated 200 homeless people showed up, according to Fujita. That’s over a 40 percent increase from the homeless coalition’s estimate of 140 who attended the resource fair last year.
The fair lasted from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. and had basic health screenings, haircutting services, a clothes closet, dozens of resource booths, and a free dinner. There were also games and activities like bingo and a photo booth.
“Some of the coolest parts for me to watch were some things you wouldn’t think of, like the photo booth and karaoke and nail (salon), because it was a really cool atmosphere,” Fujita said. “It turned something professional into something fun.”
One major difference that came from the partnership was the participation from the UGA student body. No students had volunteered at the resource fair in the past, but about 40 students volunteered this year. That was due largely to Fujita, who recruited many students to help out.
Though providing health services was a major goal for the day, Fujita said it was difficult to find doctors to volunteer.
“We didn’t have a big turnout from the medical profession, because it was on a Friday afternoon, and that’s kind of hard” for doctors to be able to come, she said.
Lindsey Clark, a nurse at Athens Regional Medical Center, volunteered to help with health screenings.
“A few of them, it’s kind of hard,” she said, “because we have people who need to see some more specialized professionals.”
“I think in Athens there should be a dental clinic [for homeless people]. That’s a huge problem, because homeless people aren’t going to worry about brushing their teeth. It’s so vital to the community, but so neglected…often it’s the first thing to get cut,” she said.
A finding from the International Association for Dental Research showed that 10% of homeless adults say dental care is most needed, and only 17% of those had received dental care in the last year.
Fujita said there will be another health day next year, and she hopes to increase the health aspect.
One young woman who was getting her nails done had been released from prison the day before and was staying at Palm House, a recovery home in Athens.
Admiring her chosen shade of bright pink nail polish, she declared, “I feel brand new.”