Live-in volunteers help provide care at Bob Tavani House

Kate Bradley stands on the porch of the Bob Tavani House for Medical Respite. Bradley and her partner, Kelly Wallin, are live-in volunteers who help provide shelter and care for those in need of housing after a hospital stay. (Photo by Jack Wiedner)

Kate Bradley clears off a wooden dining-room table, which doubles as her desk during the day. She switches out her laptop and office supplies for mismatched plates and silverware.

Bradley’s partner, Kelly Wallin, scrounges through the refrigerator, gathering ingredients for meatloaf. “No ketchup,” he reminds himself, as one of the residents is allergic to tomatoes. He will have to improvise.

While attending dinner isn’t required, the residents at the Bob Tavani House for Medical Respite almost always show up. For them, eating homemade food in the company of others is something that many haven’t experienced for years.

Bradley knows the ropes. Back in 2014, she and Wallin were live-in volunteers at Loaves and Fishes, a volunteer community that provides housing and hospitality to people experiencing homelessness. There, Bradley saw a problem.

People would show up at Loaves and Fishes, directly from the hospital, looking for shelter. Some were in worse shape than others. “We’re talking drainage tubes coming from their lungs,” said Bradley. For people experiencing homelessness, being discharged from the hospital often means having nowhere to go.

Physicians from the Duluth Family Medicine Residency Program and CHUM, a food shelf and emergency shelter, wanted to address this problem. At the same time, the First Covenant Church of Duluth was looking to donate its old parsonage house to a worthy cause. These groups joined forces to create the Bob Tavani House, and they reached out to Loaves and Fishes to provide hospitality.

Bradley and Wallin joined the project and served as live-in volunteers. Additionally, part-time volunteers would take shifts helping around the house. Bradley and Wallin stayed.

The house opened in 2018 and was named in memory of Robert Tavani, who served as a Catholic worker and mental health counselor in Duluth. He passed away in 2012.

A grapefruit tree, originally planted by Bob Tavani, grows in the dining room of the respite house. The tree lived at the Dorothy Day Loaves and Fishes house for 15 years before being given to Bradley. Samantha, a Loaves and Fishes worker, told her “you named your damn house after him, I’m bringing you this plant.” (Photo by Jack Wiedner)

Many respite houses are run by hospitals themselves, but the Bob Tavani House is different. “We’re a community response to the problem,” Bradley said. “We’re people, for people, who need people.”

People experiencing homelessness often rely on case managers to assess their needs and to provide resources. However, setting up appointments and finding transportation can be difficult for someone without a home. The Bob Tavani House makes the process easier. Instead of case managers, Bradley and Wallin are the ones asking questions about wellness and well-being.

At the Bob Tavani House, discussing health doesn’t have to be reserved to a monthly appointment. Proximity helps. “Because we live with these people, we have more opportunities to ask questions.” Bradley said. And while the house doesn’t provide medical care to residents, medical professionals come to the house when needed.

Two years after being founded, the Bob Tavani House had to face a new challenge: COVID-19. “When the pandemic happened, Kelly and I had the option of closing the house,” recalled Bradley, “We said ‘no.’ The middle of a pandemic is not the time you close.”

Unfortunately, staying open meant part-time volunteers could no longer come by. Responsibilities like cleaning and preparing dinner, which were once delegated between many volunteers, now fell on either Bradley and Wallin. Deciding who did what came down to “whoever had the bandwidth.”

While the pandemic is not over, the Bob Tavanni House is slowly returning to normalcy. “The amount of people that have vaccines is super helpful,” said Bradley, “so we’re allowing people in the house with masks again.” Bradley is hopeful that this change will allow more volunteers to return.

Helping the homeless community is a difficult thing to do. “Being homeless is not just the state of not having a home, it’s usually the result of many things in your life falling apart,” Bradley said. By providing a room, good food, and health resources to their residents, the Bob Tavani House is making a difference, one person at a time.

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