Is Salt Lake City a city of compassion or a city of abandonment? About 50 homeless people die here annually. Death is a natural process; since the dawn of humanity, people have been dying at home. But where do homeless people go to die? The shelters are not equipped to deal with the end of life, hospitals can’t keep these patients for weeks or months on end, and most lack insurance to pay for a skilled nursing facility. Without a stable place to live, they end up in and out of the emergency room, straining our city’s fire, police and hospital resources, and eventually dying on the streets or in parks.
The INN Between provides a real solution to this small but critical segment of our city’s homelessness crisis. We opened in August in the old Catholic Convent on Goshen Street, providing a safe and comfortable place where about 13 of Utah’s terminally ill homeless men and women can experience the end of life with dignity. Our residents are grateful to have a place they can call home for their final time on this earth. Since opening, we have provided death with dignity to three people and provided over 420 housing nights to a total of 22 people. We have beautified the grounds and our presence has reduced loitering and potential criminal activity around a previously vacant building. The INN Between is almost full — a major concern as winter sets in.
The INN Between had been approved to operate in our other building, the former Guadalupe School, in May, under the zoning use of Eleemosynary Facility — “a facility operated by a nonprofit charitable organization or government entity to provide temporary housing and assistance to individuals who suffer from and are being treated for trauma, injury or disease and/or their family members.” The school building can house an additional 10 to 20 residents.
On June 19, the Salt Lake City Council blocked our use of the school by excluding “end of life and respite care” from the Eleemosynary definition. Now it is proposing an additional restriction to exclude “facilities not licensed by the Utah State Health Department.” The public hearing takes place Tuesday.
The proposed changes were intended to address a gap in zoning law and ensure people's health and safety. We agree that there is a gap, but we disagree on its nature. The gap is the lack of housing for terminally ill homeless people. And there is nothing healthy or safe about dying on the street.
The INN Between is an ideal solution that offers safe housing — better than any housing our residents have had in years. In fact, the Utah State Department of Health has determined that our program complies with health and safety standards, exempting the INN Between from licensing. The Department of Health understands that all these people need is a home in which to die naturally.
The council’s proposed changes effectively mandate that the homeless die in state-licensed facilities, like nursing homes. But who will pay the $4,500 to $6,000 cost per month? The city, i.e., the taxpayers? If this were a viable solution, we’d already be doing it.
In order for the INN Between to meet community need, we must be allowed to operate under the pre-June 19 definition of Eleemosynary Facility. If adopted, the proposed zoning changes will demonstrate Salt Lake City’s lack of compassion for people who are dying and discriminate against Utah's most vulnerable homeless people by severely limiting their access to housing and hospice care. Learn more on www.theinnbetweenslc.org/zoning.
Kim Correa is executive director of the INN Between, Utah's first hospice for the homeless.