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Local View: Duluth medical respite house helping neighbors without homes

From the column: "Please join the conversation about continuing to serve the most vulnerable members of our Duluth community. A series of professionally facilitated, virtual community conversations is being planned."

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John Darkow / Cagle Cartoons
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Jack was a 57-year-old veteran who lost his job. A few months passed, and he was forced to live in his car. Then things went from bad to worse: He had a heart attack and landed in the hospital. Once he was stable and ready for discharge, he had nowhere to go, no way to keep his incision dry, and no place to store his medication.

Imagine being Jack: homeless, alone, and in need of care. Then add exposure, fear, and living in unsanitary conditions, day after day. Imagine being without an address to list on an application or a place to store food. Now factor in being sick enough to need hospital care but not having a place to heal once you’re ready to go home.

Jack’s situation isn’t hypothetical. While I’m protecting his identity by not using his real name, his story is the lived experience of too many people in our community.

Fortunately, the Bob Tavani House for Medical Respite provides a safety net for people like Jack . Opened in 2018, the respite center is in a former parsonage. First Covenant Church in Duluth donates use of its property, and the center has become a crucial part of the continuum of services for people experiencing homelessness.

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2019 file photo / The former parsonage for First Covenant Church on West Second Street in Duluth is now a medical respite house for the homeless.

Simply put, the respite center saves lives. It also generates substantial cost savings for our community and its health systems.

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The respite center has hosted more than 50 guests so far, each of them experiencing the hospitality of a room, a clean bed, and family-style meals. Guests have ranged in age from 22 to 70. They have had a safe place to rest and heal for as long as necessary — in one case for 222 days. When guests are healed enough to return to the community, the respite center’s staff has helped more than half find permanent housing.

That’s what happened for Jack. The respite center offered a safe, comfortable place where he could heal, and, while he was there, volunteers helped him find housing and helped enroll him in veterans services. After 77 days at the respite center, Jack was better prepared to face his challenges.

He’s lived in an apartment of his own now for two years but still comes to visit the respite center and its guests, pandemic and weather permitting. Jack says he wouldn’t have made it without the facility, that it provided him a chance to break the vicious cycle of homelessness.

The Bob Tavani House for Medical Respite was conceived by a Duluth Family Medicine Clinic resident, supported by community-based organizations like CHUM, and was brought to fruition by two volunteer site directors who donate their time to live and work onsite. The place remains a grassroots effort operating on a shoestring budget, kept afloat by committed volunteers, in-kind support from community-based organizations, one-time grants, and gifts. Its board recently applied for nonprofit status and is looking for ways to ensure the center can continue to serve those in need.

In the meantime, costs for food, medical care, heat, and insurance continue to mount.

Please join the conversation about continuing to serve the most vulnerable members of our Duluth community. A series of professionally facilitated, virtual community conversations is being planned over the next few weeks. To learn more, email bth_charette@ahpnet.com and be a part of the solution.

Anthony Olson is chairman of the board at the Bob Tavani House for Medical Respite in Duluth. He’s also a research scientist at the Essentia Institute of Rural Health and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy in Duluth.

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