Bellingham’s Theresa Meurs makes a difference in the lives of the homeless
With a backpack full of warm hats and gloves, Theresa Meurs and her friend Henry DelGado headed to downtown Bellingham in late 2003, in search of the homeless.
“Do you have a plan?” she remembers DelGado asking her. “No,” Meurs said, “God has a plan.”
So they walked up Railroad Avenue, trying to figure out who was homeless in a college town where it seemed nearly everyone carried a backpack. They aimed to spread the word about Hope House — a partnership of Bellingham’s parishes and Catholic Community Services of Western Washington — where clothing and other necessities are free to anyone in need.
“Pretty soon, we hit on some guys who were homeless” — Freddie, Leonard and Robbie, Meurs said. Striking up a conversation, they learned that Freddie needed glasses so he could read his pocket Bible. “I did take him a pair the next week,” Meurs said. “We were like buddies after that.”
That first day out, Meurs and DelGado discovered their homeless neighbors weren’t just cold, they were hungry. “Between us, we had 5 bucks. We got in the truck, went over to McDonald’s and got five $1 hamburgers,” Meurs recalled.
Theresa Meurs has dedicated 13 years to serving the homeless in her community. Photo: Stephen Brashear
The next time, the duo brought sandwiches to hand out, and the Hope House street ministry took off.
Today, volunteers show up on Thursday morning to make more than 100 lunches, distributed to the city’s homeless residents by two teams of volunteers, including Meurs, a member of Bellingham’s Church of the Assumption Parish.
The food offers more than physical nourishment; it’s a chance to connect with the estimated 250 chronically homeless in Whatcom County, Meurs said.
“It’s an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Are you still going down and checking in at the homeless service center? Are you still looking for housing? Are you thinking about going to treatment? If you are, let me know.’”
With no training, Meurs has learned how to build relationships with her homeless neighbors, become an advocate for them and make a difference in their lives.
“God’s taught me all along the way, and still is,” she said.
Meurs has come full circle to Assumption Parish. She made her first Communion there before attending Catholic boarding school in British Columbia, then moving to California in her late teens.
“I was actually away from the church for probably 25 years,” Meurs said. “I never left in my heart, I just sort of went off track. God just kept drawing me back — back to Bellingham, back to Assumption.”
After returning to Bellingham more than 35 years ago as a single mom, Meurs eventually returned to the church, joining Assumption’s prayer ministry and charismatic prayer group.
“The Holy Spirit and I have always had a special relationship,” Meurs said. “He stayed with me all the time … enlightening me and bringing me back.”
After Hope House opened on the Assumption campus in 2000, Meurs remembers hearing announcements about the ministry needing this or that. But walking out of Mass one weekday, “It was just like I could hear this voice saying, ‘Go to Hope House.’
“What?” she wondered.
“‘Go to Hope House.’ OK, OK, I’m going,” she remembers with a laugh.
Meurs walked over and asked how she could help. It turns out there was a need for dishes, housewares, shelving units — the sorts of things left over from the estate sales Meurs conducted for a living.
She soon became a self-described “acquisition sergeant” for Hope House. And for 15 years, Meurs has organized the Spirit of Hope Treasure Sale, which has raised $12,000 to $22,000 for Hope House in a single weekend.
“We call her our Hope House angel and our Energizer Bunny,” said Cheri Woolsey, program manager at Hope House. “She’s absolutely amazing.”
‘I can help that one’
It was St. Teresa of Calcutta’s words and example that inspired Meurs to contribute to her own community, eventually leading to her work with the homeless.
“God wants us to give them what they need,” Meurs said. “They need our attention, they need our advocacy.”
For 13 years, Meurs has consistently given them both, becoming a trusted constant in the lives of many people living on the streets and in homeless camps.
“She’s been caring about me for 10 years or so,” said Bob, a Vietnam-era veteran who spent more than 20 years living outdoors in the city’s Fairhaven district.
Rik Dalvit, Kathy Delbecq, Lilith Vine and Nancy Wopperer work as a team, making lunches for the Hope House street outreach ministry at Church of the Assumption Parish in Bellingham. Photo: Stephen Brashear
More than once, Meurs helped Freddie and Leonard, who were good friends, get into treatment or housing. “It didn’t matter how drunk they were, they always remembered my phone number,” she said. Through the years, Meurs prayed with them and over them, brought them clothes in detox, and took Freddie, a Catholic, to Mass with her occasionally.
“One time we got them both into treatment and they came back and got into a clean-and-sober house and got a job. It was amazing,” Meurs said. Then some people from their previous life showed up “and that was that.”
It was all part of learning the ups and downs in the lives of people on the streets who were dealing with substance abuse, mental illness or other challenges. “The fact that they were in need never changed,” Meurs said. “We were moved to be there to reach out in some way.”
The work wasn’t always easy. “I used to get so frustrated and angry,” Meurs said. “Why can’t we fix this? Why do we have so many homeless on the street?” Then she realized, “I can’t do it all; God doesn’t expect that. I can help that one.”
A voice for the homeless
It wasn’t long before Meurs joined those in Bellingham who were advocating for the homeless, talking to governments and organizations about the need and becoming involved in the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness.
Hope House wanted a voice at the table, Meurs said. “We were the only ones that were consistently going out into the community. It really was an important part of us getting involved in the community as well.” Hope House volunteers visited other churches to talk about their homeless outreach, a move that helped bring faith communities together.
In 2008, Meurs and others began lobbying Catholic Housing Services to build supportive housing for the homeless in Whatcom County. Four years later, she joined those who convinced Bellingham voters to approve a $21 million low-income housing levy. The funding helped CHS build Francis Place, the first housing of its type in Bellingham (see box).
When the Bellingham City Council used some of the levy money to fund a new Homeless Outreach Team in 2015, the director of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center invited Meurs to apply for the job.
“It just hit me right then,” she said. “The Holy Spirit turned on a light: It’s time to change what you’re doing.”
She had been doing fine, running her own business for 30 years and volunteering at Hope House. “I never really envisioned myself at 65 switching to an outreach position,” Meurs said. But she felt it was what she was supposed to do — that her years of volunteer work were training her for this opportunity.
Meurs had long wished she could stop and offer help every time she saw someone in need. Now she was being paid to do just that. “I was excited,” she said. “I get to be out here and do it and still eat.”
‘Jesus in disguise’
Meurs has seen significant changes in Bellingham’s homeless population since that first day in 2003: More mental illness, more heroin addiction, more people squeezed out in Bellingham’s tight rental market.
“We have 60-, 70-year-old men and women living in their cars, for not just like a week or two, but for years sometimes,” she said.
But there are bright spots and successes.
Leonard, Bob and other people Meurs has helped now live in apartments at Francis Place. Because of Hope House’s street outreach, a man named Jim who was living in his car has found housing and work, and returned to the church.
Freddie, who Meurs befriended with that pair of reading glasses, died of cancer a couple of years ago, but he was in treatment and living in a low-income apartment. “That’s what I was thankful for — he didn’t die on the streets,” Meurs said, moved to tears. “He died being cared for.”
Through the highs and lows of caring about the homeless, Meurs is propelled by her faith and the conviction that she is supposed to be doing this work.
“It could be Jesus in disguise,” she said. “When you think about that enough … you think, ‘Oh my God, how many times am I going to pass you?’”
Homes for the homeless
Bellingham’s Francis Place opened in July 2015, offering 42 low-income apartments for men and women who were homeless.
“Literally all of them were unsheltered prior to moving in … people that were living in tents, living under bridges,” said Will Rice, regional chief of operations for Catholic Community Services Northwest.
Developed by Catholic Housing Services, Francis Place uses a “housing first” philosophy, providing residents with on-site case management and an array of supportive services to help them maintain their housing and create long-term stability in their lives.
“You’re worthy of a home by the fact that you’re a human being,” Rice said.
CHS has developed supportive housing elsewhere in the Seattle Archdiocese, and is being asked to develop similar projects in communities such as Everett, Kent and Skagit County.
Learn more about the homeless outreach efforts of CCS and CHS at NWCatholic.org/homelesshousing.
This article was originally published as "Angel of hope" in the October 2016 issue of Northwest Catholic magazine.
Expanding hope's house
The new Hope House is planned next door to the existing 100-year-old house on the campus of Church of the Assumption Parish in Bellingham. Photo: Courtesy Hope House
By Jean Parietti
BELLINGHAM – Four days a week, Hope House welcomes them: migrant workers, grandparents raising grandchildren, homeless men and women, families “struggling for whatever reason.”
Each year, about 20,000 visitors come to Hope House in search of household items, food, clothing, diapers, blankets and more — all free of charge.
“We’re considered a basic needs program,” explained Cheri Woolsey, Hope House program manager. Hope House doesn’t advertise, but every agency in town refers clients, she said.
“Almost all of our clients are pretty much regulars,” Woolsey said. And they help spread the word: “Even the brand-new homeless here say, ‘I was told this is the place to come,’” Woolsey said.
In its 16th year, Hope House is a partnership between Church of the Assumption Parish and Catholic Community Services of Western Washington. The parish and CCS share the utility costs for the 100-year-old house that sits on the parish grounds.
Woolsey, a part-time CCS employee, has been with Hope House since the beginning. She manages the program, relying on the efforts of about 50 volunteers from Assumption, neighboring Sacred Heart Parish and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bellingham.
“We love St. Paul’s,” Woolsey said. “They’ve become a sister church for us.”
Clients wait outside Hope House on a May day. Photo: Courtesy Hope House
Hope House has a budget of about $80,000, with 80 percent of its support coming from donations of goods and money, Woolsey said.
“We don’t do a whole lot of fundraising. Most of our donations are just people who are loyal supporters,” she said. “It really touches their heart. Everybody knows how hard it is to make it through sometimes.”
The annual Spirit of Hope Treasure Sale, started 15 years ago by volunteer Theresa Meurs, is the major fundraiser: This year’s sale raised nearly $17,000 for annual operating costs, bringing the 15-year total to more than $200,000, Woolsey wrote in Assumption’s Aug. 28 bulletin.
Plans are in the works to replace the aging Hope House with a new building next door, also on the parish campus.
“This house is 100 years old. It’s falling apart,” Woolsey said. It has a chopped-up floorplan, lights that don’t always work and a restroom that clients can only use in an emergency, she explained. The new house will be a little bigger, about 3,000 square feet, with public restrooms and an open floor plan to better meet the needs of clients.
“I’m so excited,” Woolsey said of the project.
But first Hope House has to raise the $800,000 needed to build. The program already has a $200,000 grant from Assumption’s capital campaign and $135,000 from CCS. Private donors have contributed $60,000 to the project fund so far, Woolsey said.
In addition, Hope House is applying for grants from the state and private foundations, and raising money through a cookbook sale and tickets to the one-woman show, “Traveling with Angels” (see box).
With the help of Habitat for Humanity, “we’re hoping to be building next summer,” Woolsey said. Just as she does with Hope House’s everyday needs, Woolsey has faith the funds will come in.
“We’re hoping God’s listening,” she said.
Help build the new Hope House
Also benefitting the capital campaign are tickets sales for “Traveling with Angels,” being staged at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, in the Assumption Parish gym. The show features actress Rena Pena telling her story of adventure, adversity and divine guidance.
Tickets are $20 and can be purchased through the Assumption parish office, as well as through Hope House and the Bellingham Habitat for Humanity affiliate.
Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at [email protected].
Jean Parietti es editora local para el sitio web NWCatholic.org y destacada editora de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic. Pueden contactarle en: [email protected].