- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

ATLANTA (AP) | Bryan Flournoy sits in a downtown church, sipping coffee and taking inventory of his life. He’s 33 and homeless. He’s a stranger in Atlanta, where a bus dropped him off from California last month. He needs a place to live, and he needs it yesterday.

In a few minutes, he’ll be hoofing across the city, looking for work.

For now, his feet soak in hot water as a preacher buffs them with a pumice stone.

Every Monday afternoon for the past year, the Rev. Bob Book and his wife, Holly, have transformed the Church of the Common Ground into a spa for the homeless. They scrub the feet of the city’s forgotten, mirroring the act of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

The service, repeated at clinics and churches elsewhere, isn’t simply symbolic - it helps stave off foot infections, which affect the homeless disproportionately and can lead to more serious health problems. Men and women also leave with a shot of self-esteem that volunteers hope can help them turn their lives around.

Mr. Book said the ritual is patterned after services practiced by many Christian congregations leading up to Easter. He takes it further with about 35 homeless men and women each week: Five at a time, they get a soak, pumice, nail trim, massage and a fresh pair of socks. Volunteers wearing gloves provide apricot scrub, ointments, air freshener for shoes, nail polish and even insoles.

The church doesn’t tackle medical issues; Mr. Book tells people with serious foot conditions to come back when there’s a doctor volunteering time at the church.

“The worst ongoing thing is the fungus that goes on with people’s feet. It eats away and destroys the toenails and just makes it very hard for people to walk,” said Mr. Book, who once saw a black man whose feet were white from days in soggy shoes.

That was almost certainly trench foot, a common homeless condition that can lead to bacterial infection, said Dr. Jessie Gaeta, who practices internal medicine with Boston Health Care for the Homeless, which has operated a foot clinic for 25 years. Similar clinics run by religious groups and medical practices have popped up in Nashville, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla., among other cities.

The American Podiatric Medical Association estimates more than 75 percent of Americans have foot pain, with infections four times more frequent in homeless people.

“It’s much more than cosmetic. These are really functional problems,” said Dr. Gaeta. Foot problems often exacerbate other health issues in the homeless.

“Even a simple callus or blister in a diabetic patient is likely to become infected and can result in necrosis and result in the need for amputation,” she says.

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