Hospice House Gives Homeless a Place of Their Own

By Larry Beresford

A hospice house in Tennessee is celebrating its fifth year of providing a safe and comforting space for homeless or housing-insecure people who are nearing end of life.

Welcome Home of Chattanooga, Tenn., opened in March 2015 with funding from nonprofits, grants, and philanthropists. It was founded by two social workers concerned about the increasing number of homeless people in the community who were dying alone on the streets.

In the years since, Welcome Home has cared for more than 61 residents with serious or life-limiting illnesses who have found solace and support in the five-bedroom house and the team members who staff it.

The program has weathered its share of storms, including the one currently facing other healthcare providers: the COVID pandemic.

“But we’re still here,” said Sherry Campbell, LMSW, co-founder and executive director of Welcome Home. “We haven’t skipped a beat, and that’s because of the support we get from our community.”

Welcome Home house in Chattanooga, Tennessee
Welcome Home’s 5-bedroom house in Chattanooga, Tennessee

The Importance of Partnerships

Welcome Home is one of a handful of hospice houses across the country that serve the housing-insecure. The nonprofit home provides food, shelter, caregiving, and other basic needs for its residents, while local hospice programs provide the clinical care, patient management, and support.

Welcome Home receives no federal reimbursement, so expenses such as rent, staff, and meals must be covered by philanthropy. Still, hospice houses offer a life-saving outlet for a healthcare system struggling to manage patients with terminal illness at the most appropriate level of care.

Campbell said Welcome Home has developed strong relationships in the community over the last several years that have allowed it to grow and thrive. The organization is searching for land that would allow it to build a “dream house” to serve more people, she said.

“We’ve learned a lot,” Campbell said. “Hospices and hospitals are our main referral sources, but we also receive referrals from partner agencies like the Homeless Health Care Clinic. We have a waiting list and generally admit the (patient) who is the most acutely ill when we have an open room.”

Some residents who come to the house actually get better and are able to transition out. “We help them find new homes,” Campbell said. “We had a woman who came in here very sick and perked up with our support. Her whole personality changed because she was in a place that was loving and caring.”

That patient was able to apply for Veterans Administration benefits and eventually found a place in a retirement facility, Campbell said. “We stay in touch with her. That’s the other side of the (hospice) story.”

Angel statue in the Welcome Home garden.

Making People Feel Safe

As with all facilities caring for the sick and vulnerable, Welcome Home has implemented strict safety protocols in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The house does not admit patients who have tested positive for COVID, Campbell said, although she acknowledged that providers do not always know if someone might be carrying the infection.

“We don’t have the space to keep people isolated, but we decided to stay quarantined as much as possible,” she said.

In mid-March, as the pandemic emerged, Welcome Home temporarily stopped allowing volunteers at the house and limited the staff to just eight employees who worked long hours to fill the gaps. The home plans to bring volunteers back this month.

Masks are not required inside the house, but are mandatory for shopping and other errands. All entries to the building are through the same basement door, with washing up on arrival.

Text Box “I read the information every day – it’s worrisome,” Campbell said. “Our staff have worked very hard. They have been real troopers through this. We have great partners in our local hospices, who have followed our guidelines. And we sanitize everything twice a day.”

So far, nobody has gotten the virus at Welcome Home, she said.

COVID-19 has not been the only recent threat. On April 13, tornadoes passed through Southeastern Tennessee, flooding the basement of Welcome Home. A downed tree nearly hit Campbell’s own home. Welcome Home team members try to keep their mission at front of mind.

“My staff and I decided our focus is on just taking care of our corner of the world, making sure people feel safe and loved,” Campbell said. “Most of them have not felt safe for much of their lives.”

Two years ago, Welcome Home instituted a trauma-informed care model after reaching out to experts and providing a training retreat for staff and volunteers. It has been helpful for the residents to understand their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) score, she said.

“It’s not about what’s wrong with them, but what has happened to them in their lives,” Campbell said. “We all have the same desires at the end of life—for love, forgiveness, gratitude, and a sense that we will be remembered.”

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