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Hospice for the homeless: Faith community unites to help provide death with dignity

Published: Saturday, Jan. 5 2013 6:00 a.m. MST

Dr. Alan Cochran takes his medical practice to the streets of Salt Lake City to provide care and attention to those in need. The Fourth Street Clinic is attempting to create a hospice for the homeless. It's a collaborative effort to care better for homeless people near the end of their lives.

Courtesy Fourth Street Clinic

For Kristy Chambers, chief executive officer of Salt Lake City’s Fourth Street Clinic, the memory is still troubling — and motivating.

“We had a gentleman who came to us who was in the latter stages of his life,” she said softly, her upbeat demeanor noticeably shifting at the memory. “He knew he was dying, and he seemed to be at peace with it.”

The clinic, located on the southwest corner of 400 South and 400 West, exists to provide a wide variety of medical services to Salt Lake City’s growing homeless population. Its effectiveness and capability are the envy of other homeless service providers around the country, and the full resources of the facility were employed on behalf of the man Chambers was talking about.

“We did the best we could to care for him,” she said. “We even tried to help him reconnect with his family. That’s what he needed at this point in his life, but that didn’t happen.”

That isn’t unusual among the chronically homeless, she observed. Often family ties have been so severely severed that there is no reconnection to be made.

“He reached the point where he was close to the end, and what he needed was hospice care,” she said. “But he had no insurance, and he wasn’t covered by Medicaid, and he had no family. He died in a hospital emergency room — alone, in that sterile environment, without any love or peace or dignity.”

Chambers paused for a moment, then looked up.

“Nobody should die alone like that,” she said. “These folks deal with enough indignity in their lives. They should at least be allowed to die with some degree of dignity. But everything is extended out to the extreme when you’re dealing with our homeless individuals.”

That will soon change, if Deborah Thorpe has anything to say about it. Thorpe is an advance practice nurse at the Huntsman Cancer Institute and is experienced in end-of-life care. As a volunteer she has been working closely with Chambers and her staff as well as the Salt Lake City interfaith community to create a much-needed hospice for the homeless that will eventually include a home and surrogate families to surround dying residents with love, faith and dignity.

“We call it the Inn Between,” Thorpe said. “It will be for those who fall in between the cracks of the health care system.”

It will also be a place where people of faith can come to serve — which is exactly how the idea of a hospice for the homeless got started in the first place.

“I was working one Saturday at the food bank at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church,” Thorpe said. “We see a lot of sad situations among the people who come to the food bank, including some who are clearly getting close to the end of their lives. Some of us who were working there that Saturday started worrying: What happens to these people? Who is there for them?

“Taking care of people at the end of life is part of my profession,” Thorpe continued. “But I know that hospice care costs money, and it relies on the cooperative efforts of medical professionals, hospice care providers and family and friends. Usually it happens in the home. But what happens when you are homeless, and you have no money, no insurance, no family, no friends?”

Eventually Thorpe brought her concerns initially to the now retired Fourth Street Clinic Founder, Allan Ainsworth, whose staff was already wrestling with the problem as a result of too many experiences like the gentleman who died in the hospital emergency room alone.

“We’ve had problems getting homeless people placed in hospice care,” Chambers said. “We knew we needed to do something about this.”

And so the Fourth Street Clinic did what the Fourth Street Clinic does best: It collaborated.

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