The former parsonage at First Covenant Church in Duluth has become a place of healing for the homeless.

The Bob Tavani Medical Respite House, which opened at 2119 W. Second St. in July 2018, will celebrate its one-year anniversary with a picnic from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, July 9, in the church parking lot. Everyone is invited.

The respite house provides a safe place for people experiencing homelessness to recover from an acute medical condition. There is no set limit to how long a guest can stay.

“Our goal is that people are healed when they leave,” said Kate Bradley, one of two live-in volunteers.

While they recuperate, Bradley and fellow volunteer Kelly Wallin serve as advocates, helping them navigate housing barriers. Ten of their guests have moved on to find permanent housing or have been reintegrated with their families.

“My goal is to have people who come here leave in a better position than when they got here,” Wallin said.

As of June 28, the house had served 22 guests -- 18 men and four women, including one with a child.

“I think it saved a couple of lives so far,” said Lee Stuart, executive director of CHUM, which serves as the fiscal agent for the house.

John Arnold was its first guest.

“It really helped me,” he said. “I wouldn’t have gotten my operation without it because I didn’t have any place to stay.”

He came to the Bob Tavani House on July 25 to recover. He was back Jan. 19 for a muffin and cup of coffee. At the time, he was living at the Loaves and Fishes Dorothy Day house, working on securing permanent housing and a job, and on his way to help a friend.

“I don’t know -- we’re like family here,” he said.

The most recent guests Jan. 19 were a young mother recovering from surgery and her 7-year-old son. She said they’ve been technically homeless for three years. Recovering at a shelter wasn’t a good option because of her compromised immune system.

“I needed this,” she said as she watched her son play. “It was a good choice, especially because I see he’s happy.”

Arnold has become a regular visitor. He stopped by on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. He and his son joined the current guests for dinner June 28.

“I think people get out of this house what they put into the house,” Bradley said.

The former parsonage of First Covenant Church in Duluth, seen on Jan. 19, has found a new life as a medical respite house for the homeless. Guests are referred to the program from local hospitals. (Maria Lockwood / mlockwood@superiortelegram.com)
The former parsonage of First Covenant Church in Duluth, seen on Jan. 19, has found a new life as a medical respite house for the homeless. Guests are referred to the program from local hospitals. (Maria Lockwood / mlockwood@superiortelegram.com)

The stars aligned

Creating the Bob Tavani House involved a web of community partners. The congregation at First Covenant Church was seeking a new use for its parsonage house.

“We hated to see it sit empty,” said Dr. Harmony Tyner, a member of the service-based church in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood and an infectious disease specialist at St. Luke’s.

Two residents with the Duluth Family Medicine program, Becky Davies and Jesse Susa, applied for a $16,000 American Academy of Family Physicians grant to fund the pilot program. Resident doctors with the program also screen and treat guests.

CHUM stepped up to be the community partner. Bradley and Wallin, who provided hospitality at Loaves and Fishes shelters for years, volunteered to be the live-in managers.

“Really without one of those assets, this could have never happened,” said Davies, who graduated from the residency program June 28. “As we were writing the grant I thought really, it seems that all the stars are lining up. Various different groups in the community have been talking about a medical respite and thinking about a medical respite and it just so happened we tripped across each other all thinking we need the same thing.”

Tyner, who sits on the Healthcare and Homelessness Committee, said there is overwhelming support from local hospitals for the respite house.

“I think it’s a relief to a lot of providers who are faced with the reality of having to discharge their patients to the street, because nobody wants to do that,” Davies said.

A 2018 study found medical respite programs reduce the length of hospital stays by two days and the number of return emergency room visits by 45 percent.

“Having a roof over your head is essential for recovery,” said Dr. Jamie Conniff, former faculty physician with the Duluth Family Medicine residency program. “What surprised me most is that something like this hasn’t come along sooner.”

The interior of the Bob Tavani Respite House is a welcoming space where people who are experiencing homelessness can recover after being hospitalized. (Maria Lockwood / mlockwood@superiortelegram.com)
The interior of the Bob Tavani Respite House is a welcoming space where people who are experiencing homelessness can recover after being hospitalized. (Maria Lockwood / mlockwood@superiortelegram.com)

Untapped need

The Bob Tavani House has its limitations. It only has four beds. Guests must be able to navigate stairs. And it is a clean and sober space -- no drugs or alcohol allowed. Even with those barriers, the need is huge.

“Yesterday was kind of a typical day,” Wallin said. “I had three phone calls, three referrals,” one each from social workers at St. Luke’s, Essentia and Miller Dwan.

With the house full, all three people were turned away.

The partners considered opening referrals up to people who weren’t currently hospitalized, but were on the brink of hospitalization, like those needing chemotherapy.

“We did open those floodgates at one point and the phone didn’t stop ringing at the clinic so we had to close those gates and say, ‘Hey, we’re only taking from the hospital.,’” Davies said.

The Bob Tavani Medical Respite House is able to function on a shoestring budget due to volunteers, donors and what Bradley calls "angels" -- coffee angels, spice angels, newspaper angels -- who drop off needed items.

“We could use a toilet paper angel,” she said. “Because it’s a house.”

Bradley posts needed items on the Bob Tavani Medical Respite House Facebook page, like a recent request for a blender for a guest who was moving out, and members of the public have responded. Volunteers are needed to help with house projects, cook meals and spend time at the house with guests. No medical training is required.

Every Saturday, the house opens its doors to the community from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Anyone can stop by for a fresh-baked muffin, cup of coffee and a crack at some crossword puzzles.

In addition to free food and information, guests and volunteers plan to speak at the Tuesday event.

It’s a big deal to have a medical respite facility in Duluth, Bradley said. There are only 62 in the country, according to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council. The council lists two medical respite providers in Minnesota, both in the Twin Cities, and none in Wisconsin.