SALT LAKE CITY — Linda Lemieux was living on the streets — "on the sidewalks, under jungle gyms at parks" — and being taken to the hospital two to three times a month out of an urgent need to have fluid drained from her stomach.
Lemieux is dying of hepatitis C, and until six months ago, she was prepared to die alone.
But after one particularly harrowing hospital visit, she was dropped off at the Inn Between, a hospice home for the destitute. Though she is still terminally ill, she says everything else about the twilight of her life changed beginning that day.
"They brought me in, they fed me, they clothed me, they gave me a shower. … They've treated me with so much respect and so much dignity, I thought that was something I would never feel again. But they brought that back," Lemieux said. "(If they) hadn't taken me in, I have no doubt I'd already be dead."
Lemieux was on hand Thursday as the Inn Between announced it will be moving her and other patients to an upgraded facility within two months, expanding the organization's capacity to house more people who are both homeless and terminally ill.
The hospice home is moving from a small former Catholic convent at 340 S. Goshen Street (1040 West), where there was room for 16 clients, into a space currently occupied by Hillside Rehabilitation Center, 1216 E. 1300 South, where they have the capacity to treat 25.
"My goal is zero deaths on the street," said Kim Correa, executive director of the Inn Between. "For those who are diagnosed with a terminal illness, we want to get them in through the door."
According to Correa, 44 homeless people died on the streets in the Salt Lake Valley in 2017. The larger capacity will allow the Inn Between to better manage their waitlist, she said. She hopes to eventually house 50 to 70 people at the new center, which she said has the space but not currently the funding to serve that many.
The Inn Between has been operating at its current location since it was founded in August 2015. The upcoming move was made possible by a one-time appropriation by the Utah Legislature this year giving the Inn Between $975,000 for the purchase of a new location, Correa said.
The state also committed $100,000 annually in ongoing funding for its operations.
"It has got to be one of the biggest labors of love I've ever seen," Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, who requested the appropriations that were put into the state budget, told reporters Thursday. "This (center) is about people having an opportunity to die with dignity and be respected and really feel the love of the community."
Rep. Paul Ray, who co-sponsored Escamilla's request and is the House vice chairman of the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee which highly prioritized the funding request for inclusion in the state budget, said Thursday that the decision to provide money to the center was "not a partisan issue."
"You have both parties, you have the state and county — usually, where you have people fighting for their own, it didn't happen. This time, people came together for a cause," said Ray, R-Clearfield.
Ray said he recognizes there is a true need for the services provided by the Inn Between and he would be receptive to additional funding proposals in the future.
"Obviously there's more need out there than there (are facilities) right now," he said.
A $500,000 grant from Salt Lake County, which the center must apply for each year, is expected to be formally approved within the next several days, Correa added.
"They bring an important component to our homeless services that really hasn’t been addressed previously," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said of the Inn Between.
McAdams said that like Correa, he believes homeless hospice patients ought to at the very least "have in death what they didn't have in life."
"(More people) at this final stage of life will have love, will have compassion, will have dignity," McAdams said, as the result of the new, expanded location. "That's something we all deserve."
The county and state "recognize the value of the niche that we serve," Correa said gratefully.
So does Lemieux, who told reporters Thursday the home "was the best thing anybody could have come up with." Accustomed to being ignored or avoided due to her homelessness, Lemieux said she was taken aback during her first encounter with Matilda Lindgren, the Inn Between's program director.
"Most people don't look the homeless in the eye. I don't know if it scares them, or reminds them of what could be," Lemieux says. "But she looked me in the eyes and made me feel wonderful, made me feel human."
Tears were close to the surface for Lindgren on Thursday as she explained her day-to-day work with Lemieux and others.
"I have the pleasure of meeting our residents first when they come in, sometimes even before they move in," Lindgren said. "I (also) get to spend, sometimes, their final moments with them. … Most of all, I'm just meeting a lot of new friends every day and it's just incredible."
Lindgren also showed reporters around the new facility, pointing out features not at the Inn Between's current location. Those include a beauty parlor room for hairdressing — hospice patients simply get haircuts in a bathroom in their current setup — and a larger dining area.
Lindgren is also excited about the spacious rooms that will be available for clients, with plenty of privacy.
"I can't tell you the number of times I bring someone to (a new) room ... and they cry because they're so excited," she said.2 comments on this story
Lindgren explained that placement of terminally ill patients is the overwhelming priority for the Inn Between, but that the organization has also at times served homeless patients who need a stable home base while undergoing treatment for cancer or other serious illnesses.
Lemieux said simply of the move, "I can't wait."
The Inn Between has officially closed on its deal to purchase the Hillside Rehabilitation Center facility, whose patients will be relocated to other nursing home locations in the area, Correa said.
"Once they have their last patient moved out, we're going to move in that day," she said.