EVERETT — Pope Francis, during a 2015 Lenten service at St. Peter’s Basilica, made an announcement that would reverberate from Vatican City around the world — eventually bringing help and kindness to people on the streets here. When the pope proclaimed a Holy Year of Mercy for 2016, Dennis Kelly took it to heart.
A Catholic deacon who lives in Mukilteo, Kelly is the founder and executive director of MercyWatch. With a hardy and committed team of volunteers, doctors and nurses among them, the faith-based ecumenical nonprofit provides medical help and homeless outreach to people on the streets in Snohomish County.
On a cold Tuesday night last month, Kelly had shed the vestments he often wears as leader at Christ Our Hope Catholic Church, a parish in an old hotel building in downtown Seattle that’s now low-income housing. He also serves at Seattle’s St. Patrick Parish.
Kelly was once Archbishop Murphy High School’s campus minister. He served at Everett’s Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Perpetual Help parishes. These days — and nights — he puts a high priority on being present to those on the streets, people struggling with addiction, mental health crises and poverty.
Instead of a cleric’s vestments, Kelly wore a reflective yellow vest over his coat on that cold night in Everett. Meeting in a parking lot at Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Cedar Street, MercyWatch team members showed up, one by one.
In their cars and in a storage space at the north Everett church, they had snacks, water, blankets and medical supplies. They drove to a parking lot on Hoyt Avenue, across from the Everett Public Library, where more than a dozen people were waiting for them in the night cold.
Questions for the helpers came quickly: Are there any more blankets? What is there to eat? That night, there were instant noodles, packages of cookies and bottled water.
One skinny young man, carrying a sack and a skateboard, simply said “I need everything.” He was given the last pair of available socks.
“This is the only Tuesday feed in this part of Everett,” Kelly said. “They’re pretty hungry.”
Clearly trusted by those on the street, Kelly greeted people by name. “Michael, how goes it?” Kelly said to one man, and then told how the 50-year-old Michael had been helped to get a hearing aid.
One woman asked for $2 to get gas. Kelly didn’t give her cash, nor did he turn down the request. If she could wait a bit, he said patiently, he’d take her to a nearby Safeway and buy the gas.
A woman who said she’s 55 and her name is Kebyn was pushing a stroller with a cover on it. Jammed in the stroller’s enclosed seating were her only companions — two cats and three small dogs. “At least we’re not sleeping in somebody’s yard,” she said, adding that she came from Wyoming and was staying in her broken-down vehicle.
Van Phan, an 80-year-old retired nurse, was there to help. Along with volunteering with MercyWatch, the Everett woman is a hospice and prison ministry helper. From her Catholic Daughters group, she collects blankets, socks and gloves to be shared through MercyWatch.
Everett’s Duane Schireman, a Boeing retiree in the midst of a four-year program to become a Catholic deacon, has devoted Tuesday nights to MercyWatch for about a year.
Bringing medical expertise to the evening’s effort was Dr. James “Jimmy” Grierson, a family physician with Providence in Marysville, founder of the Safe Harbor Free Clinic in Stanwood, and a MercyWatch volunteer. Why do it? “I have the skill set to help,” he said. “I have a real heart for people and hate to see people suffer.”
Grierson sees mental health as the greatest medical issue on the street, but he treats infections and helps people get vaccines. “It’s all about taking care of one person at a time,” he said.
Gail Pyper, a school nurse at Everett’s Evergreen Middle School, has helped with MercyWatch since March.
“It’s a ministry of presence,” Pyper said. “What’s nice about this, you develop relationships with people. They tell you different chapters of their lives.”
Amanda Dahl, the team’s medical scribe, hopes to go to medical school. With a clipboard, the Santa Clara University graduate took as much information as those being helped by the care team would offer.
Outreach teams help on Tuesday evenings, 6:20-9 p.m., in the parking lot across from the library. On Thursday nights, they do that work — handing out food and supplies and providing care — in a parking lot of the Everett United Church of Christ at Rockefeller and Everett avenues. Some Tuesdays, they stop at a Smokey Point laundromat.
MercyWatch also sends mobile medical teams to the Everett Gospel Mission, 9:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesdays, and 2-7 p.m. Thursdays at a needle exchange site in Everett. Dr. Tim McNamara, a retired physician, and his wife Judy are involved in that work.
Kelly said many people don’t like seeing “do-gooders handing out food” on the street. Some, he said, drive by and yell.
“Even at Safe Harbor, I get hate mail for treating immigrants,” Grierson said.
“I kinda understand the frustration,” Kelly said. “But until we have affordable housing, the problem doesn’t go away.” He has encountered people with $700 monthly disability payments who can’t rent a place. “There are a lot of veterans. It’s just a complicated issue.”
Generations ago, Kelly said, an older person with a mostly-empty house might “let a room,” and rent to a stranger — a financial help to both the homeowner and renter. People are afraid to do that now, he said.
Not all of MercyWatch’s helpers go out on the streets. About 200 are involved, many as donors or by preparing food, while some 30 people do face-to-face outreach.
The small nonprofit Kelly started was indeed inspired by Pope Francis, who in 2013 said that mercy “changes the world.”
“A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just,” the pope said in 2013. MercyWatch helpers are living those words.
“It is our Calcutta,” said Kelly, a reference to the humanitarian work of Mother Theresa.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help MercyWatch
MercyWatch is a faith-based nonprofit that helps people on the streets of Snohomish County. Outreach and medical teams go out to Everett parking lots, to the Everett Gospel Mission and other sites to provide food, supplies and health care. Information: https://mercywatch.org/
The organization needs financial support; supplies including socks, sleeping bags, blankets, gloves and coats; food preparation help; people to join outreach teams; marketing, grant-writing and church engagement; and more.
Donations by check may be mailed to: MercyWatch, P.O. Box 1550, Mukilteo, WA 98275.
For more information, email email@example.com or call 425-710-0909.