Alex Martinez, of Joplin, was living on the streets and struggling to maintain his health for years before he visited Mercy Hospital Joplin and was referred to a new respite care shelter at Watered Gardens, an opportunity he described as life-changing.

Martinez said he wasn’t sure what was wrong with his health at the time and that his attempts to find out were to no avail. After bouncing from one place to the next with no answers, he finally was diagnosed at Mercy Hospital Joplin with autoimmune disorders.

“For almost three years, I was sick and I didn’t know what was going on,” Martinez said. “I wasn’t getting better. And after multiple hospitals, I went to Mercy about a month ago, and they were able to find out what was wrong with me. I was homeless at the time, and I had nowhere to go. Mercy told me not to worry and that they have a place where I can recuperate and get back up on my feet.”

Mercy referred Martinez to the new respite care shelter at the Watered Gardens Outreach Center on Kentucky Avenue. The center gives homeless people the chance to receive necessary care after being discharged from the hospital rather than go back to the streets. The estimated 800-square-foot center has six rooms with individual beds and curtains for privacy, as well as a shower, a restroom and a common area. It is also wheelchair accessible.

Watered Gardens and the Mercy Hospital Joplin Auxiliary partnered to launch the program, and officials celebrated the completion of the shelter with a ribbon-cutting and dedication ceremony on Thursday. The project was announced last summer and officially opened its doors in February. Martinez was the first respite resident.

For the past few weeks, Martinez has been able to call the shelter his temporary home while his health improves and he searches for transitional housing.

“The Lord’s been answering all of my prayers,” he said. “Watered Gardens is able to provide me with whatever I need. I’ve been here for a few weeks, and I’m in the process of getting better. I’m taking medications, and it just takes time. My goal is to get well and receive treatment. Once my housing comes through, I’m going to transition from here into my own home and continue to be treated.”

“It’s an awesome thing for the community and for people like me who really need this,” Martinez said. “It’s nice to know that this is here. There’s no telling where I’d be right now if I didn’t have access to this place.”

Studies have suggested respite care programs for the homeless reduce the average hospital length of stay by 4.9 days and reduce the risk of readmission by 50% within the first 90 days of discharge, according to Watered Gardens. Doug Gamble, outreach center director, said the respite shelter is a great opportunity to provide care to those who need it most.

“Alex is a perfect example of who this is for, and as you look around, I know you’re going to be impressed with how it’s turned out,” Gamble said to the crowd at Thursday's ceremony. “It looks amazing in here. As you think about the respite facility here at Watered Gardens, I want you to actually picture Alex and think about folks like Alex who are in these situations. He was in the hospital and still working out the details of permanent and long-term housing. He was able to get out of the hospital a little quicker and has a place to go to recover.”

James Whitford, executive director and co-founder of Watered Gardens Gospel Rescue Mission, said the idea to establish a respite care shelter for the homeless came to him over two years ago.

“I met a woman sitting out here on the curb who had a fresh pacemaker incision, and she said there was no (shelter) beds available,” Whitford said. “It was obvious that we needed to do something. Over the years, we’ve seen people who have difficulty getting up the stairs or have physical disabilities coming out of the hospital who just weren’t fully recovered. We’ve already been caring for those people but not in spaces like this.”

The Mercy Hospital Joplin Auxiliary, a volunteer organization made up of over 200 members, played a large role in kick-starting the program, donating $45,000 to Watered Gardens to support the renovation project. Organization volunteers raised the funds through gift shop sales and fundraisers such as linen sales.

Rosemary Newman, past president of Mercy Auxiliary, said she first got involved with the volunteer organization seven years ago. She also volunteers in pastoral care, where she’s seen the need for a respite care unit for homeless individuals.

“I was surprised at how many homeless people I saw when I made visits, and I’ve even seen some crying because they knew they needed to be discharged from the hospital, but they had nowhere to go,” Newman said. “When Mercy first presented the idea about building a respite care unit at Watered Gardens, we were all really excited. It was also important to us that not only the patients from Mercy but other hospitals can use it. It’s not exclusively for us. It’s for any person who needs care after being discharged.”

Whitford said the program will benefit the community economically and be better for hospital systems. Respite units reduce the rate of emergency room use by 64% in the first year, according to Watered Gardens.

News reporter

Kimberly Barker is a news reporter for The Globe who covers Northeast Oklahoma, Southeast Kansas, as well as Carl Junction and Webb City.

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