SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Foot care is often overlooked when immediate concerns include finding a warm bit of sidewalk to roll out a sleeping bag, a hot meal to savour or a thick blanket to battle the chilly nights.
Once a month, a makeshift spa materializes on an airy deck at Friendship Park in Sacramento, Calif., giving homeless feet a slice of something they rarely experience — comfort.
“When you look someone in the eyes and wash their feet, it’s the most humbling thing you can do,” said Judy Parker, a registered nurse who volunteers at the event, which is hosted every third Thursday by Loaves & Fishes.
The service is even more vital for the homeless because their feet — usually their sole mode of transportation — can be windows into general health, Parker said.
Volunteers wash, clip and massage dozens of pairs and are told to look beyond calluses and blisters for ingrown toenails, signs of fungus and — most critically — infections.
Last month, one woman was sent directly to the emergency room, where she had three toes amputated, Parker said.
Foot care is especially critical for diabetics because the disease can impair blood flow, which leads to nerve damage.
John Anderson, 43, was a truck driver until prison became his home. Now it’s shelters or the streets.
Last Thursday, he sat in one of the plastic chairs — placed in a row facing footstools — and dunked his feet into a plastic bag-lined tub of warm water with Epsom salt.
“I liked the massaging,” he said. “I do a lot of walking.”
A nurse created the program more than four years ago, said Sister Libby Fernandez, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, which serves 700 people a month and has seen its numbers rise by five per cent since last year.
“It started as a symbolic act of Christianity and it’s turned into a service of the heart,” Fernandez said.
The disinfectants, tools and towels are donated and dozens of volunteers regularly sign up for the task.
Maureen Laharty, 82, drives from her home in Pioneer every month. “It’s nice to pamper them a little bit,” she said.
“And you’re meeting all the nice people who are happy when they’re with you.”
André Gayet, 68, a Sacramento glass artist, does it for the thanks: “When they leave here, they leave with a smile — that’s enough.”
William Orr, 35, had never experienced a pedicure before signing up for the service — he wanted the new pair of socks that are handed out with each service.
“This is just a bonus,” he said as his feet were scrubbed, rubbed and exfoliated.
Depression and bipolar disorder have made Orr chronically homeless since 2001, he said.
Chris Lloyd, 58, welcomed the break from life’s difficulties.
“It’s not so much being on the streets,” he said.
“It’s not having somewhere to go after the streets.”