When a few Opportunity Council programs slowed or came to a halt during the COVID pandemic, some staff had a chance to experience working in other departments.  Dennis D’Amelio, who works in the agency’s Home Improvement Department, temporarily moved from working as a Weatherization project coordinator to assisting the agency’s Homeless Outreach Team.  This is his experience and perspective.

By Dennis D’Amelio

BELLINGHAM, Wash., — Many of us are struggling due to the Covid-19 virus, but perhaps none more than people who are homeless and unsheltered.  These community members routinely struggle to meet basic human needs.  Unfortunately, many of these services have gone away during the crisis.  Shelters have been moved and filled up.  Drop-in centers and access to food, showers and shelter are hard to find.  This makes the work of the OC Homeless Outreach Team more important than ever.

This three-person team, Bob Kumar, and Jamsie “JJ” Biondi led by long-time homeless champion Theresa Meurs, are out on the streets most days passing out food and basic hygiene needs, including lots of hand sanitizer and masks.  The team goes into the woods seeking out the homeless camps, passing out supplies and information about where to find food, showers or other resources.

The group walks into the woods along muddy paths shouting, ”Outreach, outreach. We have food.”  People emerge from tarp shelters and look with mistrust until they realize it is Theresa and her team.  When they realize who it is they smile and some of the mistrust disappears.

The team has built many relationships and this is the key to delivering these important services.  You can see the connection.  Theresa will reach into one of her many pockets and hand out a laundry voucher or an address.  She will listen and make a note and then follow-up.

The team asks each person how they are doing, what they need.  One person refuses the food and says they have enough right now.  Another takes an extra bag to give to a neighbor who is away at the moment.

There is no judgement so the people living on the edge do not feel judged.  The team accepts whatever comes and soon leaves.

Then it’s time to move to the next camp or the next parking lot. And the next day they do it all again.