by Gabrielle Corrigan
Lying under the stars on an abandoned truck dock one bitter winter’s night, a man was found asleep. Taking a lunch and water bottle over to him, Theresa Meurs introduced herself as a member of Hope House Street Outreach.
A week later, when Meurs’s Street Outreach path again encountered the man, towering almost 7-feet tall with large feet covered in tattered sandals, he asked if she happened to have a pair of size 17 men’s shoes. Searching high and low, she looked for the unusual size with little luck. Then, in what she calls “a miracle,” she found two pairs of Italian, 16.5 loafers at the Goodwill. The man just started to cry when she handed him the shoes.
“Those are the stories that keep you going,” said Meurs, an admired 62-year-old Catholic Community Service volunteer, who barely peers over the steering wheel of the Street Outreach van with her sparkling eyes. She departs every Thursday night from the Church of the Assumption to be a friend to the homeless.
As a founder and director for Hope House Street Outreach, Meurs has become a beacon for helping people living on the streets, working prominently throughout the Bellingham community to stabilize them with housing, rehabilitation, food, clothing, and love.
Twelve years ago, she went to explore Hope House, a multi-service center for low income people sitting in the shadow of the Church of the Assumption. As she toured around, she discovered they had insufficient donations. From then on, she started helping the service center with her time and access to house-wares and clothing through her business in estate sales.
Months later, as Meurs and some other volunteers thought about ways to expand Hope House, they went downtown to hand out hats and gloves.
“I didn’t plan it,” she said, but in the following weeks, their idea started to expand from passing out gloves and hats downtown to handing out lunches across Bellingham, beginning the Hope House Street Outreach organization.
Apart from Thanksgiving, every Thursday morning, Meurs and some volunteers make about 220 sandwiches for that night’s outreach. Currently, there are five volunteers who help Meurs distribute the lunches every week in two vans; one heading to downtown and Fairhaven, and the other to north Bellingham. They visit scouted camps and look for telltale signs of people living on the streets.
One night in January, three of the volunteers have clipboards in hand. This is the homeless count night, a census that is taken every year for the city of Bellingham to estimate the number of people not living in an established building. At times like these, the city calls on Meurs’s knowledge of popular homeless hang outs and camps.
Among regulars who arrive at the church before departure, a man with a big beard, long fingernails on blackened fingers, jolly eyes, and ripped clothes comes striding up. Meurs greets him by name and gives him a special lunch which says “cheese, no mayo” on it. The sack contains two sandwiches, cookies, and a water bottle like all the others.
Sometimes, Meurs said, it is hard to see progress. But it is worthwhile, she said, when the work pays off and there is that one success story.
Over the years, she has become friends with many of the people she has helped. One Christmas, a homeless man was eager to give back to his community, so she asked him to decorate the Christmas tree at Hope House. It brought tears to her eyes, she said, as this 50-year-old man decorated a Christmas tree for the first time in his life while he sang “Happy Birthday, Jesus.”
“I can’t count the hours,” Meurs said. Her job in estate sales management has become a side line, as she spends most of her time taking care of different homeless people’s needs between Thursday night Street Outreach, homeless coalitions, taking them to appointments, and just being a friend to talk to. She has delivered clothing bags at 10 at night to someone in need, she said.
Meurs looks like she has unending energy as she zips around like an elf, handing out sandwiches and hugs. The homeless here are mostly lonely, she said, so when Street Outreach gives out lunches, “we just let them know that we love them.”
Now the city, police department, service centers, and churches around the community are becoming more involved in helping homeless people off the streets, out of jail, and into permanent housing. Meurs said that after the murder of a homeless woman in north Bellingham last year, the police chief, Homeless Service Center, and Street Outreach started working together on a pilot project to house the homeless.
A group of three women sitting in the doorstep of a store on Railroad Avenue clasp their legs up to their bodies. Meurs asks if they need something. “Right now, I’ll take anything,” one woman responds.
“We need to focus on the younger and older people,” Meurs said regarding housing the homeless, “so that hopefully we will get to the middle and there will be nobody.”
As the volunteers get ready to leave, a big man with a blond, curly beard and layers of coats talks to Meurs about the death of a close homeless friend earlier that week. He practically smothers her as he picks her off her feet in his bear like hug.
“We do what we can,” Meurs said, reflecting on her work, but “I don’t know if it will ever be enough.”