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The dignity to be sought in death is the appreciation by others of what one has been in life. 
– Sherwin Nuland, American surgeon, writer and bioethicist.

Everyone deserves death with dignity. To make that final journey surrounded by love, support and care.

But the terminally ill who are doubly burdened with homelessness typically do not find the services most can count on. Hospice care requires a permanent home address, which by definition, those living on the street, in shelters or in their cars do not have.

In Salt Lake City, where it was estimated that 50 terminally ill people died on the streets each year, two women familiar with hospice care founded The INN Between, Utah’s first hospice for the homeless.

Originally Deborah Thorpe, a cancer nurse practitioner, and Kim Correa, development director of a large hospice agency, relied on donated beds in nursing homes to give the homeless a respite and medical care as they faced the end of life.

Both women inherently understood that homelessness is a condition, not a character flaw. Ironically, it was often their illnesses that caused people to lose their jobs, their funds and ultimately their homes.  

The women’s mission grew dramatically when they acquired a former convent and school and created The INN Between, where Kim is now the executive director and Deborah leads the volunteer board. The facility can house up to 16 formerly homeless people at a time. The INN Between provides the basic needs such as meals, clothing, bedding, laundry, and personal hygiene items.

But perhaps just as importantly, the staff and a small army of dedicated volunteer "House Mates" go above and beyond the basic needs to provide companionship, emotional and spiritual support, plus activities and therapies that improve quality of life while relieving pain and anxiety.

The staff also strives to reconnect its clients with estranged family members. It allows residents to both widen their social safety net and begin to mend fences with loved ones before death. Since it opened two years ago, 92 percent of The INN Between’s residents were reunited with estranged family members.

And then there are the “miracles,” homeless people who have been referred by hospitals for end-of-life care, but unexpectedly recover. There have been three miracles since The INN Between’s opening who have improved so much, they have been released from hospice care into other living arrangements.

Those who die at The INN Between are surrounded by loved ones or volunteers (the residents choose who will be at their side during their last moments, an honor the volunteers take very seriously). They are in a safe place, in the company of people who care about them and honor who they were in life.

The INN Between holds a memorial service for each resident who dies in their care and posts an obituary celebrating their life on its website.

One of their former residents, Jimmy, may have put it best when he described the care he received up to his death last year. “I thought I’d be dying on the streets,” he said in a video interview. “I’m just a grateful man right now. Clean bed and sheets, I can lay down in a warm place, people check on me and make sure I’m okay. I get the help I need.”

The local Salt Lake City PBS affiliate, KUED Channel 7, followed The INN Between for two years to create a moving documentary, “Homeless at the End.”  It is airing through November and you can also watch it online here.

Read more on Cindy May's Blog here.