Rick Silva always assumed that he would die just as he’d lived: penniless and alone, sleeping on a dirty Salt Lake City sidewalk.
Then, after ending up in a hospital emergency room a few months ago, where it was revealed that he had cirrhosis of the liver and was dying, Silva, 64, was told about The INN Between – a unique hospice for the homeless that provides food, shelter and end-of-life care for Utah’s most vulnerable residents.
“When the doc told me there was nothing they could do for me and that my liver was beyond repair, I guess I wasn’t surprised,” says Silva, a former mechanic who has been homeless for two decades and has struggled for years with drug addiction.
“I was scared, though,” he tells PEOPLE, “and I wondered what I was going to do. So when I ended up at this place, it was a blessing – a clean bed, medical care and a place to sort out my life. I am extremely grateful.”
Funded primarily through private donations, The INN Between opened one year ago in a renovated school “so that terminally ill homeless people would have a place to die in dignity, instead of on the streets,” Kim Correa, executive director of the hospice, tells PEOPLE. “Last year, we had 47 people die on the streets in Salt Lake City. That’s 47 too many.”
“Society has turned its back on these people,” she adds. “We spend more time and money on homeless pets living at animal sanctuaries than we do on people living on the streets. They’re not homeless people, they’re abandoned people. At their end of their lives, they deserve a little peace of mind.”
With room for 16 residents (there is sometimes a wait list), The INN Between looks more like a bed-and-breakfast than a hospice, with sunny bedrooms and a community dining room and living area where men and women gather (as they’re able) to share meals and swap stories about their unconventional lives.
“They get very emotional about it – to finally have a place to go before they die,” program director Matilda Lindgren tells PEOPLE. “I’ve had big and tough guys get teary and tell me they were saving up pills, figuring they’d end their lives on their own somewhere, maybe in a motel room, so they wouldn’t have to die on the street. They’re glad to know they won’t have to be found by a stranger. That means a lot to them.”
On July 25, a memorial service was held at The INN Between for the 10th person to die at the hospice, John Lukaszewioz, 61, who had suffered for years with liver disease. Lindgren was able to track down his mother and two sisters so that he could say goodbye – something she attempts with every resident.
“He was able to talk to his mom and know that he was loved before he died,” she tells PEOPLE. “Everybody needs that closure – the opportunity to forgive and to be forgiven. Sometimes, they have been estranged from family members for years and it takes a little detective work. But it’s so well worth it to see them reunited.”
A memorial service is held at The INN for every person who dies, with cremations offered at a deeply-discounted rate by a local mortuary and a plaque bearing the person’s name placed in the hospice’s garden.
Although other residents usually don’t attend memorial services because it’s too painful for them, says Correa, “they’ll gather together and talk about the person and share personal stories. Living together, they become close friends, so losing a person can be like losing family.”
Linda Payne, 55, who has beaten cancer five times, endured 33 surgeries and now has a rare hereditary form of colon cancer, has lived at The Inn Between for almost a year and has known most of the people who have passed away.
“It’s hard when they die, but they’re in pain and their bodies are tired,” she tells PEOPLE. “Knowing them has made me value my seasons on earth that much more.”
Although Payne has a terminal diagnosis, she still feels well enough to help with the cooking at The Inn and take care of the flower garden. “I know that the disease will kill me – it has already taken two of my three boys,” she tells PEOPLE. “But I’m not afraid of death. I call it ‘going home.’ ”
Homeless since moving to Salt Lake City from Oklahoma last year to get treatment at Huntsman Cancer Institute, Payne slept on the sidewalk for two months, then moved into a women’s shelter for a while.
When a doctor referred her to The INN Between, “I felt blessed to have a little space of my own,” she says. “Everyone here is so caring. It’s a beautiful place to be at the end of your life.”
As for Rick Silva, he knows that as he grows weaker, the day is coming when he won’t be able to get out of bed and join his friends downstairs, but he has accepted that.
“Just a few months ago, I was sleeping on the concrete,” he says. “If it weren’t for The INN Between, I’d probably already be dead.”