It’s been one year since The INN Between, a hospice center for the homeless opened its doors to the dying and medically fragile.
Annetta Lasich just arrived here in a hospital gown. She tells me she has terminal liver cancer.
“I just found out less than a week ago,” she says. “So I’m still kind of like getting through it emotionally.”
Matilda Lindgren is the program manager at The INN Between. She’s helping Lasich check in to the last available bed at the hospice. Lasich laughs nervously, and says she’s never been terminal before. Lindgren reassures Lasich that she and other staff here will help her through this process.
Lasich moved to Salt Lake City from Austin, Texas three months ago and has been living in a hotel.
She was first diagnosed with liver cancer 15 years ago, but went into remission.
“And I kept trying to tell people that I need lab work done. I need x-ray’s done. And no one would lift a finger to help me,” Lasich says. “Now ten years later, I’m terminal and it could have been fixed.”
I’ve been following several of the residents at The INN Between over the past year, including Jim Adams whom I spoke with back in February just after his 60th birthday.
“I have three different kinds of cancer, stage four,” Adams says.
Adams spent a year and a half on the streets before coming here in early 2015.
“I can’t stay at the shelter because I don’t approve of it,” Adams says. “They would rob me or kill me for my pills.”
Adams told me he’s accepted his imminent death. Here in his bedroom that looks like a college dorm, he’s grateful for what The INN Between has given him.
“Unbelievable, the hope it gave me,” he says. “Just a place to come and rest and pass, you know? I can sit here with my socks off and lay on my bed.”
Adams says sometimes he cries alone in this room, but not for himself.
“Other people suffering out there like me and others here,” he says. “To be alone and die and just be a number when the cops find you on the side of the street, or wherever you die at.”
Executive Director Kim Correa says dozens of homeless people die alone on the streets of Salt Lake County every year.
“So for most of us, we get that terminal diagnosis. We have health insurance. We start seeking treatment and that usually takes a toll on the body and it needs a lot of medications," Correa says. "We need a home. We need sleep. We need people caring for us.”
Many people who are homeless don’t have health insurance, so they’re discharged from the hospital with a terminal diagnosis and go back to the streets or the shelter until their disease overcomes them.
And without family to pay for burial expenses, the deceased often go to the county morgue to be cremated.
“Sometimes you see it when you drive by Pioneer Park and all the fire trucks and ambulances are there and the police cars and they’re zipping up a body bag,” Correa says.
In the past year, 57 people have stayed at The INN Between. Ten of them have passed away.
Meghan Mills was close to someone who died on the streets. The indigent defense lawyer and homeless advocate spoke during a November 2015 Salt Lake City Council hearing about whether to allow The INN Between to expand.
“I guess I just wanted them to know that there are good people that are stuck on the street that are freezing, that are dying alone,” Mills says. “And that somebody out there really loves them and wants them to be safe.”
Mills and I are walking through Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, where she says her late father Lowell loved to join the Sunday drum circles. She says her father ran his own tile installation business for a few years, but he struggled with schizophrenia.
“He’d disappear for a week or two. He was really obsessed with religion. And sometimes he would think he was different people from the bible,” Mills says. “He was funny. He was smart. He was athletic. I remember him doing front flips on the grass. And you know, like, sometimes he was really normal and then all of the sudden he would just be bad again.”
In the winter of 2008, she and her brother scheduled a lunch date with their father. But he didn’t show.
Then they got a call from police saying they had found him. He died of a heart attack in the parking lot of a Sizzler. Mills says she likes to imagine someone was with him when he passed.
Kim Correa wants to make room for more residents at The INN Between. But as executive director of the region’s only hospice for the homeless, she’s navigating a number of obstacles. There’s pushback from neighbors who are worried about having too many homeless people near their homes and an elementary school. And Salt Lake City planners are still trying to decide how to properly zone The INN Between, because it doesn’t fit any current zoning category.
“We searched for four years before we found a building that was suitable and that we could afford to launch the program in," says Kim Correa. The “where” is always the big question and it is always going to be next to something; next to a neighborhood, next to a shopping center.
Correa hopes The INN Between can be part of long term efforts Salt Lake City and County officials are making to coordinate homeless services and build new facilities.
People who come to The INN Between don’t know when they’re going to die. Sometimes it’s quick. Sometimes they get better and leave and some find themselves living in the facility for months.
Jim Adams passed away shortly after I interviewed him in February. The INN Between held a memorial service in his honor, where Correa spoke.
“Anything we would say if it was stressful, he always had a comeback that would make you laugh and for that he was a great example about how to live with other people and not sweat the small stuff,” Correa said. “When I feel like I’m being inundated with stress, I just think, say something funny and don’t sweat the small stuff just like Jim would have done”
Correa tells me her focus right now, is providing a safe, loving home for the people who are living out what could be their final days at The INN Between. And, more importantly, making sure they’re not doing it alone.