Jillian Olmsted was intrigued by a news story in 2015 about attempts to open a small residential hospice for the homeless in Salt Lake City, where she lives. The INN Between would offer a home for people who were unsheltered and dying so they could be fed and cared for, in beds and out of the cold.

But she was also floored by the hue and cry of neighbors who didn’t want them around — even though they were terribly medically frail. Her dad was fighting cancer, and she had just helped care for her mom and stepfather, who died a month apart. Both “had insurance and a nice home and family to take care of them.” Why begrudge someone shelter, care and comfort in such dire circumstances? 

When the program opened, she volunteered. Hospitals aren’t built to provide weeks- or months-long solutions, while homeless shelters can’t provide medical care and often have rules that won’t even let someone spend the day inside. But hospices offer a low-cost and compassionate approach for supporting people who are near their end.

The place where no one dies alone

The INN Between had a handful of employees, 16 beds and no regulations to guide its unique effort. They learned as they went. Olmsted had to work around home-schooling her two sons, and as the gig turned into a job, she’d bring them to events she managed for the fragile residents, whom her boys loved. 

Her sons are now 18 and 20 years old, and Olmsted, married to a linguist retired from the Air Force, has been executive director of The INN Between since 2022.

The program has grown, including a dramatic change in 2018 when the organization found a much larger home. In the new space, they can provide both recuperative and hospice care for up to 50 homeless individuals. 

Deseret talked to Olmsted, 40, about unmet needs, the people they serve and tender moments.

Deseret Magazine: Volunteering is one thing, but dow did you prepare as the job grew?

Jillian Olmsted: One thing I started doing when I came on was the Utah Nonprofits Association credential program — nine different areas, taught by subject matter experts. They also give you tools to implement what you learn at your organization. So it’s practical and specific. It helped, because we didn’t have a proper volunteer program or an employee handbook or procedures that would help us stay out of legal trouble. Now we do. We will be among a handful of nonprofits in Utah that earned all nine credentials.

DM: What does the INN Between need most?

JO: People giving time and money are our biggest needs. There’s also our wish list. We can always use things like bread, eggs, milk, toiletries. But unrestricted funding is what nonprofits need most. We do have overhead and administrative costs; we can’t do it without it. Unfortunately, many funders have certain regulations, and they want you to have no or low administrative and fundraising costs, as though you don’t need to have an accountant and HR and building costs and all those things. Major gifts are a big deal. So is someone going to the website and donating $5 a month. This year one of our food grants was used up so soon, but we served 35 percent more people last year and prices have jumped. Every dollar determines how many people we can help.

DM: Have you ever turned someone away because of money?

JO: No, but we probably should have. I think we get really close to burning out our staff when we are operating at full capacity. 

DM: What are holidays like at the INN Between?

JO: We let the residents decide. There was more controlling before and we’d keep holidays to a minimum, worried some people might have related trauma. Now we’ve just decided we’re going to go for it. We’re going to let residents decorate and decide what to do. If there’s a Santa Claus and some people don’t want to participate, they can stay in their rooms. There will be an inclusive, diverse range of holidays and residents can choose what they participate in, rather than us putting residents in a bubble. I mean, if you go to any store, there’s Christmas stuff all over the place. You don’t escape it.

“Yes, they’re staying here for free. Yes, that’s better than sleeping behind the dumpster. But they deserve high-quality care and to be treated equitably.”

DM: How have residents responded?

JO: Last year for Halloween we let everybody write down what they wanted to be, with no guarantee, but we said we’re gonna try and go to Deseret Industries so that you guys can be whatever. We had a resident named Liz. She was over 50. And Liz wanted to be a scarecrow. Her family wouldn’t let her dress up or go trick-or-treating, so this was her first and last Halloween before passing at the facility. She was just so stinking happy. This cute-as-a-button scarecrow went all out just to have lunch in the dining room. 

DM: How are resident decisions made?

JO: We’re required to have a resident council; the state regulates that for the assisted living side. And they have such a big voice in so many things. Yes, they’re staying here for free. Yes, that’s better than sleeping behind the dumpster. But they deserve high-quality care and to be treated equitably. So it’s been awesome to see. We have to police people so much less when they’re given the authority to police each other: This is your home, so you get to call some shots on how you want your home to be.

DM: What have you learned about life from being at the INN Between?

JO: I’ve learned that if you wait to plan for your death, then it probably isn’t going to be as peaceful for you or the people around you. And if you wait to tell your family or friends or anyone your wishes, you might get to a point where you can no longer advocate for yourself, which will lead to a tumultuous ending. But I’ve also learned that we can’t take it personally when people are upset. We focused a lot on those behaviors early on. The thought was, they should be happy that this is better than the alternatives. Yeah, but they’re having to swallow that giant pill of being in a hospice for the homeless. And chances are, this is the last place they’re going to be. Being on the streets for so long, being treated poorly by some people, it can just be rough. People are coming to terms with all that. I love it when they are sweet, kind and thankful, but I also know they’re angry at life or themselves or their circumstances. We have to have compassion for their feelings. 

DM: Are there tender moments?

JO: We don’t care if you’re mad, we don’t care if you’re grumpy, no matter what, no strings attached, we’re always going to be there. I’ve had a few residents say, “I just wanted to tell you that no one has ever treated me this kindly in my entire life.” It’s sad because I don’t feel like we’re being overly kind. We’re just being human. It’s tragic to think that someone’s gone through their whole life and it just took someone letting them stay in a bed and making meals for them. What was their childhood like? That just makes you wonder if they ever really experienced love. When I give tours, it feels like a movie set. I wonder if people think that we’re setting stuff up, like one resident pushing another’s wheelchair or helping someone to fill a hummingbird feeder. We have “Pleasantville” moments that you couldn’t even script. And some stuff you have to let be, like with kids. You could focus on preventing your kid from picking his nose at age two. Or you could just make sure he doesn’t run out into traffic.

DM: What if people are afraid to volunteer?

JO: Come visit. There’s no commitment. People can come and spend some time and figure out what’s the best fit for them. If they’re not sure about being in the facility, they can help with stuff outside — yard work and other needs. And we need people to drive our residents to and from appointments or to chaperone activities.

DM: Any last word?

JO: We have to put ourselves in the situation of the people we’re seeing. Few are homeless by choice, most are homeless because of a medical crisis, or they lost their job and home. That could happen to any one of us. How would you want to be treated?

This story appears in the December issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.