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‘They recognize their value and embrace them’

By Emma Murphy

emurphy@ lowellsun. com

LOWELL » When Karen Peugh first visited Life Connection Center, she was amazed by the nonprofit’s approach to its care for the city’s homeless population. She was touched that the organization provided a plated, wait- service meal for its visitors.

“ To have people wait on them and serve them is very unique, and their approach … it’s about the individual and helping them to realize and remember that they still matter to their communities,” said Peugh, senior director of integrated care management at Lowell Community Health Center.

That same level of care has been unfazed by the current pandemic.

Where many organizations have been forced to scale back their services, Life Connection Center is ramping up. In an effort to fill growing gaps in resources for the homeless population, Life Connection has taken on everything from providing bathrooms and wash stations, to purchasing cellphones and chargers for distribution.

HEALTH » 8A

kitchen staff John Rothwell of andover, left, and Chris Vasa of lowell, fill trays with lunch at the life Connection Center on appleton Street in lowell, which serves the homeless and those with substance abuse disorders.

Julia Malakie / lowell Sun

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In honor of National Health Week, the Lowell Community Health Center, or Lowell CHC, is recognizing Life Connection for its work before and during the pandemic.

“ We have worked hand in hand with Life Connection Center for a number of years to address the needs of Lowell’s homeless popu-lation,” Lowell CHC CEO Susan West Levine wrote in an email. “ This small, nimble organization never missed a beat during the COVID pandemic, providing meals, hand- washing stations, and bathrooms for the homeless individuals among us. We are honored and grateful to partner with Life Connection Center and to recognize their tireless commitment during National Health Center Week.”

Life Connection’s executive director, Jaime Dillon is quick to point out that a group of individuals from the Brazilian M. I. L. Church started Life Connection in 2013.

“ The church moved into this neighborhood and realized there was a lot going on here and a lot of need,” Dillon said.

The church began cooking meals and, as Dillon puts it, “ loving on people.”

The crowd grew.

In recent years, Life Connection has become so busy, the church created a formal, separate nonprofit. Dillon joined the team initially to help with funding. Now she is helping the center respond to the pandem-ic, while simultaneously expanding services.

“ Through this whole operation, through COVID, we saw all of these organizations shutting down,” Dillon said. “ We just made a decision internally to stay open.”

Life Connection is still serving home- cooked meals, but it is now providing those meals to go Monday through Friday.

Since the pandemic, Dillon said the center has seen an increase in the number of people coming by. Many are people the center has never seen before.

“ Brand- new people who have never been homeless before,” Dillon said.

The number of people coming by for meals has increased from around 120 to 180, even 200 people on some days.

To continue its syringeexchange program and to help distribute other necessities like toothpaste, the center installed a passthrough. The center also began purchasing cellphones, chargers, backpacks and other gear to help people stay in touch with their care providers.

That is where Life Connection’s partnership with Lowell CHC comes in.

The partnership began a few years ago when Life Connection’s team realized that while many of the city’s homeless population were comfortable going to the center for meals and other services, they weren’t comfortable going to the health center.

The idea formed to have the health center come to Life Connection and set up tables during mealtime.

“ Our motto is saving lives across the table,” Dillon said.

Through the partnership, the health center has offered HIV testing, clinics, counseling and Narcan distribution directly at Life Connection.

“ It’s been an incredible partnership,” Dillon said.

Now Life Connection is helping facilitate telehealth calls with the center. This is where the cellphones are particularly useful. Some in the homeless community list Life Connection’s phone number as their contact, and if a doctor at the health center needs to speak with a homeless patient, the center can call Life Connection and a staff member will run out to track that patient down.

“ They know their population, they know them by name, they know everything about them, they get to know them on that individual level,” Peugh said.

The pandemic has created particular challenges for Lowell’s homeless community.

Businesses where they could access a bathroom are closed, as are places like the library where they could get out of the elements and charge their phones. The shelter has had to reduce the number of available beds, and the city’s closure meant further isolation.

According to City Manager Eileen Donoghue, about 70 more people are on the street due to the reduction in beds. With cold weather on the way, Donoghue worries about worsening conditions for the community.

“ This has been an enormous challenge in good weather, and it’s going to be an enormous challenge in winter,” Donoghue said.

Life Connection is working with the city to safely remain open and expand services. The church that started Life Connection is planning to move to accommodate its growing membership, leaving the current building for Life Connection to expand into, and the team is eager to get going.

Currently, the team is evaluating the space. Dillon would like to start providing a triage service for people new to the area who do now know about the services available to them and may otherwise fall through the cracks. Lowell Community Health Center is certainly a part of those expansion plans.

“ The way that they’re responding to the needs of their community is just incredible and something to be recognized,” said Peugh. “ They treat a population that many think are scary or not worthy, and they recognize their value and embrace them.”

From left in front, Life Connection Center staff members Vinny dalmaso and Chris Vasa. rear from left: samantha Cardillo, Isaac Xavier, John rothwell, Corey Bowser, James Hepburn, founder Cleusa Costa, and Executive director Jaime dillon.

JULIA MALAkIE / LOWELL sUN

Peer leader samantha Cardillo of Lowell, left, talks with Lisa strong of Lowell at Life Connection Center.

JULIA MALAkIE / LOWELL sUN

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