As the Mountlake Terrace City Council continues to look at ways to spend its allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, a representative from Mountlake Terrace-based Mercy House Multiservice Center Oct. 18 made his pitch for a portion of the dollars aimed at COVID recovery.
Don Osborne, a 33-year Mountlake Terrace resident who serves on the Mercy House Strategic Planning Committee, came to the council’s Oct. 18 business meeting to explain more about Mercy House, which he called “one of the best-kept secrets in Mountlake Terrace.” Currently under construction on 56th Avenue West across from the city’s Evergreen Playfields, the project is expected to be completed in January 2023, with a grand opening in the spring.
The mission of Mercy House, Osborne said, is to improve the daily health and well-being of families and individuals living in South Snohomish County. According to the Mercy House mission statement, the effort is inspired by “faith-based values and belief in taking action.” It is affiliated with St. Pius X Catholic Church in Mountlake Terrace.
Mercy House is a collaborative effort that includes St. Pius, St. Vincent de Paul and Catholic Community Services. The project has received financial support from the Verdant Health Commission, Catholic Housing Services, the YWCA, Volunteers of America Western Washington; Snohomish County Human Services and churches, organizations and individuals, he said.
According to Osborne, parishioners first envisioned building a new facility to offer social services to those in need in 2015 — inspired by Pope Francis’ call to Catholics to focus attention on works of mercy. The planning began, “and then COVID hit and everything was put on hold,” he said.
But organizers recognized that the need for social services was too great to wait for a building, so they developed a virtual Mercy House, known as Prepares. Using a repurposed meeting room at St. Pius, “volunteers got to work,” Osborne said. With a focus on helping children, expectant mothers and young families with everything from diapers to formula to baby clothes, the effort went from serving 17 families in 2017 to 713 in 2021, and that number is still growing.
Many of the volunteers involved with the current Prepares program are multilingual, said Osborne, adding that 40% of the church’s population is Hispanic.
The Prepares program provides both emergency and ongoing support for those in a range of situations including those who need help paying rent and utilities, emergency food and clothing; parents who are pregnant, have babies or young children and need diapers, baby food, baby clothing and support; and those seeking referrals to a range of services, including medical, mental health, prenatal care, employment, housing and legal services. A dental van also visits to offer on-site services.
When the Mercy House building is completed, it will include a professional resource manager — called a navigator — trained in human services, Osborne explained. This person will provide professional intake, learn about the individual’s or family’s needs, and figure out who can help them. He estimates that with this new resource, they will be able to help between 3,500 and 5,000 families annually in South Snohomish County.
Why build an actual Mercy House when the virtual effort is so successful? Osborne pointed to the number of people living in poverty, those without health insurance and living with disabilities, adding “If we can accomplish as much as we have without a true physical presence, how much more can we do when people do have a place to come to?”
In addition, he said, “In this day and age of homelessness, helping to keep people in their homes before things turn too dire is a key prevention situation that we want to take advantage of.” He stressed the project will not include any type of housing or shelter for those who are homeless, but is meant to instead offer referrals for those in need.
At the end of his presentation, Osborne asked the council for $250,000 from the city’s ARPA funds to help cover capital expenses to complete the $1.4 million building. A private donor has come forward to cover Mercy House’s operational expenses for the first three years, but that money can’t be used on construction. The majority of the ARPA funds would be paid directly to the Mountlake Terrace-based general contractor working on the project, he added.
Following the presentation, Councilmember Erin Murry asked Osborne about the role that faith will play in the center’s work. ‘We won’t do anything that goes counter to the faith of the (Catholic) Church,” he replied. For example, he said, “If someone comes in requesting abortion services, “that’s not something that we will do.”
“We live out our faith by helping people and we will help anybody,” Osborne added. “The question doesn’t come up what a person’s faith is, what their beliefs are, what their disbeliefs are. Anybody who comes to us, who needs help is welcome.”
“We’re not going to be trying to convert people when they come in,” he continued.
Mountlake Terrace is receiving $6 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds by the end of 2022 to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, and during the past year, the council has discussed various ways to use the funds. The money must be committed by the end of 2024 and fully spent by the end of 2026.
The council has already allocated up to $500,000 to help residents and business owners with past-due utility bills as well as matching funds for a state grant to assist with recruitment and retention of child care and other employees at the city’s Recreation Pavilion.
Now councilmembers are looking at a range of ideas for using the remaining funds, including the possibility of funding nonprofits that do good works both locally and regionally.
— By Teresa Wippel