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SALT LAKE CITY — Most of us have wondered what it would be like to live on the streets. But I’d imagine few of us have ever considered what it would be like to die there.

Thousands of homeless people perish under bridges and in alleyways every year. In Salt Lake City last year, about 50 people breathed their last breath without even the modest comfort of a safe home, a warm room, or a dry bed.

That number would have been even higher if not for the existence of The Inn Between, one of the nation’s only hospice facilities for homeless people.

 Part medical respite center and part hospice, The Inn Between opened in 2015 on the grounds of a former Catholic convent and school.

Last May, The Inn Between moved into a larger facility with 50 beds, half for homeless people recuperating from illness and half for those with terminal illnesses. The new location features a commercial kitchen and a beauty salon. A certified nurse’s assistant is on site at all times, and each hospice patient is given their own dorm-style room.

The Inn Between also provides residents with a sense of community, something they often lack on the streets. Residents enjoy bingo, jewelry-making classes and regular get-togethers for holidays and birthdays.

On a recent visit, I met Kathy Conway, who suffered a severe foot infection several years ago that left her unable to work. Conway became homeless until she found The Inn Between, where she has lived for nearly two years.

Staff members drive her to medical appointments, make sure she’s taking her medication, and help her navigate layers of government bureaucracy to ensure she receives the Medicaid and Social Security benefits she’s eligible for. “They’ll fight for us tooth and nail,” Conway said of the Inn Between’s staff.

Conway also found a sense of belonging she’d lacked throughout much of her adult life. Formerly a shut-in, she now has a community who cares about her.

Conway told me about her friend Glen, who had recently died after several months in hospice at The Inn Between. Glen’s death left Conway feeling depressed and withdrawn. But the staff and other residents lifted her spirits.

“They don’t let you be sad here,” she said, adding that she was grateful Glen had a safe place to spend his final days. “Everyone deserves someplace to die with dignity.”

“Whether we are healing or dying in the end stages, we’re all in it together,” she said. “I’m not sure what I would do without this place. It’s been a saving grace for me. I’m feeling like I’m a human being again.”

The Inn Between has two dozen paid employees and an enormous team of volunteers, who pitch in with cooking and cleaning, and by driving residents to medical appointments. In 2018, more than 1,000 people volunteered at The Inn Between.

“It’s amazing how many people develop a passion for our work,” Kim Correa, The Inn Between’s executive director, told me. “We may not always know why at first. But it usually comes out that they either have a family member or close friend who has experienced homelessness or substance abuse or mental health [problems], or all those three.”

Matilda Lindgren, The Inn Between’s program director, has the street cred to look residents in the eye when she talks to them about their lives. Years ago as a young mother of two, she spent a year living on the street and in homeless shelters, so she understands how dangerous those places can be. “Matilda is like the greatest person in the world,” Conway said. “Her door is always open.”

Helping hospice patients prepare for death isn’t only about meeting their medical needs or making them feel comfortable if they’re in pain. It’s also about encouraging them to reflect on and be at peace with their lives, and to prepare for what lies ahead.

Lindgren said the greatest challenge for most hospice patients isn’t the dying itself. Rather, it’s the regret they feel as they examine their lives. Staff members prioritize reconnecting dying residents with estranged family members.

Sixty hospice patients have died at The Inn Between since it opened. Trained as an end of life doula, Lindgren sits vigil with dying patients. Afterwards, she bathes and dresses them in clean clothing. A memorial service is performed for each resident who dies.

Some hospice patients stay weeks or months, others last only a few days. They’ve also experienced four “miracles,” patients who enter on hospice but improve so much that they are eventually discharged.

Residents undergo regular drug tests. But The Inn Between doesn’t run background checks or reject anyone based on a criminal past. “Anybody who has the need to be here, I think deserves to be here,” Lindgren said. “We wipe the slate clean when they come in.”

There is a lot of talk these days about dignity — the dignity of work, the dignity of the presidency, the dignity of life.

But there is a dignity in death too. Just as there is something sacred about the way we enter life, there is something sacred about the moment we exit it too.

Which is what makes The Inn Between so special. Their work recognizes the inherent dignity of a group of people accustomed to going through life unseen.

“People deserve not to be judged and scrutinized as they’re dying,” Lindgren said. “They deserve to have a dignified end to life.”

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