New respite program helps homeless people heal

Brother Francis Shelter Respite program manager Robin Dempsey sits in the new respite area. (Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

A new community partnership is freeing up hospital resources by proving people without homes a place to heal. Brother Francis Shelter in Anchorage is working with the area’s three main hospitals to provide respite care for sick or injured people who are homeless.

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During her 26 years as a home health care provider, nurse Deb Seidl has treated people living in homeless camps and out of campers–anywhere she could consistently find them. But she said healing on the streets is hard.

“To be sick or to be just not well – maybe it’s an injury – to be on the streets is scary,” Seidl said. “It’s difficult to heal. There’s so much to try to pull together.”

Wounds are more easily infected without running water, and overcoming an illness is harder without some place to sleep all day. This causes people to go in and out of the hospital taking up beds and using emergency department services. They need one basic thing.

“For healing, housing is often that first prescription,” Seidl said.

So a couple of years ago, a team at Providence began looking for a community partner that could provide short-term respite housing for people who are homeless. They found it with Catholic Social Services.

“Here we are in the Brother Francis Shelter Medical Respite Area,” BFS Program Director Lisa Caldeira said as she walked into a quiet hallway at the back of the largest emergency shelter in Anchorage. The area has five double occupancy bedrooms, a small common room with large plastic rocking chairs, a kitchen, and an office for a case manager.

“It is meant to be a space for peace and calm and healing,” Caldeira explained. Some people stay there for a week, others for months.

The pilot respite program started with just two beds in October 2016 then quickly grew to four. Some of the 18 patient-guests who stayed there received in-home health services, like nurses who changed bandages on wounds or physical therapists. Others just had a space to rest while getting over pneumonia or a broken bone.

Caldeira said during the pilot phase, Providence donated care to patients, giving the partners time to figure out details like visiting protocols and compliance with Medicare requirements.

“We were able to practice and make mistakes and figure out how medical respite could work here at the shelter and for Anchorage,” Caldeira said.

Now the respite area is officially open and has space for 10 patient-guests, like Ed McLaughlin. He joined the respite program because of a broken knee.

“If it wasn’t for back there,” McLaughlin said, pointing to the respite area, “my only other options would be sprawl out on the floor out here like the general population does that’s staying here, or be out on the streets.”

McLaughlin said because he’s had time and space to heal, he may not need surgery. He hoped to be back doing seasonal jobs soon and not returning to the shelter.

For Vicki Hannah, the new respite program offers hope. She moved to Anchorage from Seward to seek medical care but can’t afford housing. Without housing, she can’t get the surgery she needs.

“The doctors don’t like to do surgery for people who are homeless,” Hannah said, echoing the sentiments of some of the medical providers. “So I was going to have to wait until Alaska Housing put me in a place, but now I might be able to have it done sooner.”

But Hannah can’t pre-book a room in the respite area. Patients are connected to the program through the hospitals who contact the shelter and together they see if the program is a good fit. The patient-guests have to be able to care for themselves and be willing to share space. For people who stay longer than a week or so, the case manager will connect them to longer-term services and rapid re-housing. 14 of the 18 patient-guests who participated in the pilot respite program did not return to homelessness.

The program is based on similar models at homeless shelters in Washington and California.

“Probably doing this has been the highlight of my career,” Seidl said. “Part of it is to be in the room with community leaders and hospital leaders that have a common goal and all have the community and community members’ best interest at heart.”

Seidl and others say this is the first time they can remember Providence Hospital, Alaska Regional Hospital and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium collaborating on a project. Construction companies and architects volunteered time to re-do the space at the shelter. They are also opening a clinic at Brother Francis.

Seidl said anecdotal evidence shows that emergency department visits are down since starting the program, but they don’t have hard data. However, she has heard one concrete response from participants: “It is so good to feel safe.”