Phoenix sister opens respite center for the homeless

Sr. Adele O’Sullivan, MD, stands in front of local artist Bertica Garcia Dubus’ work Sept. 27 at Phoenix’s first medical respite center for the homeless. (J.D. Long-Garcia/CATHOLIC SUN)

A web of community and individual relationships have helped realize the dream of Sr. Adele O’Sullivan, MD, to open Phoenix’s first medical respite center for the homeless.

Sr. Adele, a member of St. Joseph of Carondelet, will open the doors of Circle the City to patients for the first time later this month.

The center will fill the gap in the continuum of care between hospitals and the street.

“The clients are coming from hospitals that are well enough to go home, but they have no home to go to,” Sr. Adele said. “We all know, in today’s world, less and less time is spent in the hospital. Healthcare has moved to the home.”

The medical respite center and its offices, located at 333 W. Indian School Road, are designed to be a welcoming beacon of hope and help for those living on the streets needing medical attention.

The 50-bed facility offers surgery and physical therapy onsite, in addition to a barbershop and an interfaith chapel.

The men’s dormitory-style rooms can accommodate 40, while the women’s unit has eight beds. There are also two private rooms featuring reverse airflow isolation for contagious diseases.

The center celebrated its grand opening festivities Sept. 28.

Van Tucker, a member of St. Theresa Parish, attended with a special gift in hand — the altar for the chapel that Sr. Adele asked him to craft.

The request was humbling, and Tucker said he wanted to make something simple, peaceful, and pleasant, especially for veterans.

“I don’t want them to feel forgotten or lonely. Making this altar, I couldn’t help feel that this was one of the most important things I could give back to them.”

The two-story center, leased from Hospice of the Valley, resonates a feeling of home rather than a healthcare facility with its uplifting wall colors and carefully chosen artwork.

“It’s exceeded every dream I ever had,” Sr. Adele said. “We are really remarkable in the way everybody came together to get this done.”

Sr. Adele, who recently celebrated 44 years as a religious, was the first from her province in Los Angeles to be sent to medical school.

In 1984, she received a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of Arizona, where she also completed her internship and residency in family medicine.

It was her work as a physician and medical director of the county-run program, Health Care for the Homeless, that Sr. Adele became determined to respond to the critical need of a respite center for people on the street recovering from illness or injury.

“We were the largest city without one,” she said, “This is considered, now, a best practice in care of the homeless.”

In 2002, Sr. Adele began, in earnest, to realize her dream of opening the nonprofit, whose logo has historical significance to her order.

“It appealed to us, the embrace, because it has a unifying feel of bringing people together,” she said. “Since the 1600s, we have been called to go out and divide the city and work in the streets. It feels tender for our city with a population that needs love and nurturing.”

By 2008, Circle the City was incorporated. Sr. Adele, a name synonymous with homelessness, toured respite centers across the country, and worked through the intricacies of policy and procedures, staffing, medical equipment and information technology.

“Health care for the homeless is its own specialty. We are dealing with a population with a unique set of needs,” Sr. Adele said.

When it comes to funding, she said each city was “creative” in terms of how it funded and organizationally positioned its respite center, either through federal or private dollars.

From its inception, Circle the City has been a community-based, grass-roots organization. As president and medical director, Sr. Adele wants to foster that ownership in the civic community.
“I see goodness in everybody coming together to do something we believe is good. The whole project is collaborative, and done because of wonderful partners,” Sr. Adele said. “Now, it just needs to get out there and it needs to be a living thing; helping people get on their feet.”

Sr. Adele, who is a tenacious advocate for the poor in need of medical services, is a nationally recognized physician. This past August, she was honored by The Phoenix Business Journal with a Lifetime Achievement award.