“If your feet not happy, you’re not happy,” said Tracy Ray. He should know.
As a person who has lived on the streets for most of the past decade, Ray’s feet are his only mode of transportation. And like most people experiencing homelessness, those feet must take him everywhere he needs to go: to work, to the store, to visit his doctor, to meet with his social worker, to connect with his friends.
For the average person experiencing homelessness, that adds up to 5 to 10 miles of walking a day, often in a pair of ill-fitting shoes while carrying everything he or she owns in a backpack or plastic bag.
That much walking also adds up to a long list of painful problems. Corns and calluses. Blisters and bunions. Infections and ingrown toenails. Swollen legs and feet. Nerve damage. And when the temperature drops, frostbite.
Enter Kathy Bissen. A Crystal resident and nurse for 39 years, she increasingly felt God calling her to provide foot care to people experiencing homelessness or living in difficult conditions.
“There’s such a great need,” Bissen said. Yet when she went to volunteer in 2006, she couldn’t find a nonprofit offering foot care. So 14 years ago, she started her own.
Today, SoleCare for Souls has 67 active volunteers who serve 200 clients a month in four locations: Cedar Valley Church in Bloomington; the Union Gospel Mission Men’s Shelter in St. Paul; Calvary Church in Minneapolis and the Mary F. Frey Minneapolis Opportunity Center, operated by Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (For addresses and hours, visit solecareforsouls.org.)
Each location intentionally coexists in a place where those experiencing homelessness go for other needed services such as meals, clothing, showers and health care.
“Their feet are their transportation, and their lives are hard enough,” Bissen said. “They don’t need another place to go.”
All SoleCare locations are first come, first served — and fully booked. “That’s because SoleCare works miracles,” said Quincy Stroeing. His painful ingrown toenails used to make it nearly impossible for him to walk, which is why he arrives an hour or more before SoleCare opens to ensure he gets one of the day’s coveted appointments.
Henry Bailey also appreciates SoleCare. “I can walk when I leave here,” said Bailey, whose feet carry him not just around the Twin Cities but also across the country. “I’ve been living up and down the highway for years,” Bailey said, “but I always come back to SoleCare.”
So does Ray. “I walk better when I come here,” he said. He feels better, too. One reason is the uplifting atmosphere.
“The mood is determined by who shows up,” said Bissen. “Some people are boisterous and outspoken, others are very quiet. Some use the time to share stories and laugh with another; others to catch up on their sleep.”
That sleep, however, may be interrupted at any moment by the ringing of a cow bell — SoleCare’s way of welcoming first-time visitors.
Regardless of first-time or longtime status, everybody enjoys a similar, carefully orchestrated experience. It begins with a friendly greeting, followed by a basin of warm, soapy water. While their feet soak, a nonmedical volunteer sits beside them, engaging them in conversation — about their whole lives, not just their feet — all while offering a nonjudgmental ear and plenty of encouragement and support.
Then a medical professional — who must be an RN, nurse practitioner, physician assistant or doctor — inspects the person’s feet, trims toenails and files corns and calluses. Those delivering foot care sit on a low stool, which allows them to look up into the face and eyes of the person being cared for.
“With four nurses, four patients and three volunteers laughing, talking and working at once, often with noisy tools, it can get pretty crazy, but that’s part of the SoleCare experience,” said Bissen, who is the only paid person on the team.
Once care is complete, each person gets a foot massage and a new pair of socks: cotton in warm months, wool in cool months. If needed, they also get shower shoes and antifungal cream.
While most appointments last 30 to 45 minutes, SoleCare is about more than just the number of people served in a day. “If someone is brand new and their feet are really needful, we’ve been known to spend up to two and a half hours with them,” said Bissen.
People can attend the foot clinic once a month, although in situations of great need they can come more often, Bissen said.
In addition to sole care, people also receive soul care, she said.
“They’re invited to share their prayer concerns,” said Bissen, adding that people of every faith are welcome to receive care. “At the end of each day, I type up [the concerns] and e-mail them to another important group of volunteers: the SoleCare prayer team.”
On this particular week, that team is praying for Andrew’s circulation, Artis’ back pain, Elgen’s family and Janak’s son who is facing deportation.
SoleCare sees approximately 200 clients a month; at some locations, it is not unusual to treat up to 25 clients in a six-hour shift, Bissen said.
“The care SoleCare provides is so needed,” said Martha Trevey, family nurse practitioner and clinical services manager with Hennepin County Health Care for the Homeless. One reason, she said, is because people can drop in without an appointment and be greeted with open arms vs. being shamed for being 15 minutes late, something that can easily happen when a person must rely on his or her feet for transportation.
Another reason is touch. Many homeless people live without it, yet research shows that the simple touches most of us take for granted — a pat on the back, a caress on the arm — provide powerful health benefits.
“This is especially true when performed in a safe space by people trained to touch others in a nonthreatening way,” said Trevey. “At SoleCare, you can see the positive effect on people’s faces. They come in feeling down but leave feeling better physically and emotionally.”
So do those who volunteer. Chris Niederer of Minnetrista, for example, experienced a traumatic brain injury that left her unable to work as a nurse. She prayed that God would find a purpose for her. That purpose turned out to be SoleCare, where Niederer has been volunteering at least once a week for the past three years.
“This is better than any paid job I’ve ever had,” Niederer said, “and I will do it for the rest of my life.”
Bev Bachel is a Twin Cities freelance writer and author of “What Do You Really Want? How to Set a Goal and Go for It.” Follow her on Twitter @BevBachel.