SALT LAKE CITY — Despite an emotional ribbon cutting last month dedicating what would be Utah's first volunteer homeless hospice, Salt Lake City leaders have halted the facility in its tracks.
The City Council unanimously passed a temporary land-use regulation Tuesday, delaying INN Between's opening for at least six months.
Kim Correa, INN Between's executive director, said the action came as a complete surprise. The hospice was on track to open in four to six weeks.
"I feel absolutely blindsided," Correa said, adding that she had been working with city officials on the project since November. "We thought things were going great."
But the council passed the ordinance after Councilman Kyle LaMalfa brought it forward to address what city officials described as a "recently discovered regulatory gap in the city code that could inadvertently compromise the health and safety" of ill people in group settings.
Mayor Ralph Becker also signed off on the regulation.
LaMalfa said under previous city code, INN Between would not need to be licensed by the state, and the City Council was not comfortable with allowing it to open without being held to facility-specific standards.
"We want a homeless hospice," he said. "But the basic levels of human health and safety is not something we compromise on. The homeless deserve the same minimum standards of health and safety that everyone receives."
That's why it was decided to delay the facility's opening until city officials could assess the current challenges and help formulate solutions to address those licensing concerns, said Art Raymond, spokesman for Mayor Becker.
But Correa said the state license in the city code as of Tuesday now increases requirements far beyond what was planned for the nonprofit organization and jeopardizes the hospice's future.
In order to meet the new licensing requirements, the building would need to be remodeled to be wheelchair accessible with elevators, widened doorways and specialized bathrooms, which would require INN Between to raise up to $1 million, she said. It would also push its opening date back at least a year.
"We don't have that kind of funding, and frankly, the patients on our waiting list don't have that kind of time," Correa said.
The hospice is located in the building that formerly housed the Guadalupe School, 340 S. Goshen St. (1040 West), and would provide a safe place to live for homeless people who are capable of self-care but have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, Correa said.
The licence the facility now needs is required for assisted living facilities. Correa said INN Between doesn't fall into that category because as soon as patients are unable to perform basic self-care, the state already requires her to move those individuals to a skilled nursing facility.
Plus, as long as patients are living at INN Between, certified physicians, nurses and home health care workers would be required to provide medical care, she said.
"The state is already regulating me," Correa said. "We don't need the City Council to create a higher or more stringent level of regulation than what the state is already providing."
But LaMalfa and City Council Chairman Luke Garrott said if patients are classified as terminally ill or dying, their living facility should be held to certain standards.
"When people are passing from this life to the next, there are medical concerns," Garrott said. "And we think that considering this as a medical facility is a good backstop because we don't have a category and nor does the state have a category for this type of facility."
Garrott said the City Council was having difficulties defining the facility's unique character because its plan kept "evolving," especially regarding how many people it would serve and how many licensed medical professionals would be on-site.
"Their answers keep changing, so we're not sure what exactly we're supposed to be licensing," he said. "But we do know we have a responsiblity as a government to provide for the health, safety and welfare of individuals. So we're taking six months so they can actually figure out their plan and so we can make sure that the spaces in between city regulations and state regulations are being taken care of."
On Thursday, Correa met with Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, for counsel on how to proceed, including protesting the City Council's action and attempting to overturn the ordinance. Dabakis spoke at the hospice's ribbon cutting last month, and according to his staff, he remains invested in the progress of the facility.
Raymond said city officials intend to continue working with INN Between planners to eventually get the facility up and running.
"We can work through this together, address the frustrations and challenges, and get the work done," he said.