MANCHESTER, NH – At 7 p.m. a small group waits outside 1269 Cafe. In an hour they’ll find comfort from the cold dark night. It’s Dec. 1, opening night of the HOPE for the Winter at the Twelve warming station, a collaborative effort by cafe proprietors Mary and Craig Chevalier, and HOPE Recovery, on Wilson Street.
HOPE’s Executive Director Keith Howard gives all the credit to the Chevaliers for doing the heavy lifting.
“I’ll be there one night a week to volunteer,” Howard says, as will some of his staff. But making sure the city’s homeless have a place to find refuge from the cold now that shelter beds are mostly filled is something Howard and the Chevaliers initiated last year. They were able to raise enough through grants including $70,000 from the city – and the generosity of donors, as well as a chunk of change from each of their own operating budgets – to make it happen again this winter.
It is a welcome alternative to sitting outside in the cold. But it is no substitute for a home.
Shelters are full; housing scarce
As with most U.S. cities, Manchester is in the midst of a housing crisis that hits low-income residents hardest. While some receive vouchers for temporary stays at hotels, the only other alternative is shelter beds. And as with most cities, Manchester has a faction of people who are homeless but, for various reasons, don’t seek shelter beds.
A majority of the shelters operating in New Hampshire are for those who are living sober. Families in Transition operates one of the only “low barrier” shelters in the state, what was once called a “wet” shelter, which means sobriety is not a prerequisite for a bed.
For the past several years a visible population of homeless people have been drifting from place to place. Sometimes it’s because the encampment they form is swept by city officials for being on private property or deemed unsafe, or a nuisance to neighbors. Other times it’s due to city ordinances that prohibit camping, or tents, or shopping carts. This year the migration ended outside FIT’s emergency shelter. A dozen or so tents have been pitched around the perimeter of their fence.
A few weeks ago FIT requested a meeting with the city to see what could be done. The sidewalk is public property so FIT can’t make them move, and neither can the city.
The city wondered why the fenced-in area at FIT could not be used as a makeshift encampment, just to get people off the sidewalks, and maybe add a few portapotties.
Stephanie Savard, FIT’s Chief External Relations Officer, explained that it’s a liability for the organization, which is straining to staff up to manage the 138 adults currently living at the shelter. They aren’t equipped to oversee 30-40 more people, or deal with medical emergencies or any kind of chaos that might erupt outside. Savard told city officials her staff already faces harassment and aggressive behavior from those living outside the shelter.
“We don’t want to have to turn anyone away, but the reality of the situation is we’re at capacity,” she says. “It can’t be one nonprofit’s responsibility.”
There is a statewide shortage of shelters, transitional housing, qualified staff and resources to address the depth of need, which is in every New Hampshire city.
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted what COVID has done,” she says, noting that since Families In Transition merged with New Horizons much work has gone into revamping how the shelter operates. “There were a lot of restrictions and rules and we’re able to run a low-barrier shelter now that is truly the model.”
Dining services are improved. Case management has doubled. The outreach team goes into the community and camps. But without adequate housing options, a backlog is created of people languishing on waiting lists ready to move into something more permanent, but those places don’t exist.
The cost of housing one adult for one night in a shelter is between $25-$35; the state provides $8 per day toward that cost. Even with state and federal grants, it’s an underfunded and unsustainable prospect.
Now that the warming station is open overnight it has drawn a few dozen people, but the tents remain.
Alderman Pat Long said once it snows and there’s a need for plowing, he’s not sure what will happen.
“Here’s the entity supposed to be taking care of the homeless, and they have this empty space where the greenhouse was, and people living on the outside,” Long said. “It doesn’t send a good message that you’re the emergency shelter but nobody can stay inside the fence.”
He understands liability concerns but also feels there’s more the shelter could do.
“How about bathrooms? They only allow those who are staying inside and working with caseworkers to use their bathrooms,” Long says.
During the Dec. 7 Board of Aldermen meeting, city officials heard from members of the public who urged them to act with urgency on the matter of unhoused people and provide “permanent housing solutions.”
The Overnight Shift
It’s 7:30 p.m. and Mary Chevalier is sorting the new 1269-branded T-shirts and sweatshirts by size. Each volunteer will wear one during the overnight shift, to identify them as staff. On the back of the shirts is a quote from scripture that comes from Proverbs 14:25 and reads, “A true witness rescues lives…” In the context of the passage, the quote applies to honesty and the consequences of bearing false witness. But in the context of the 1269 Cafe, it says everything about their mission: Saving lost souls through human kindness.
She checks in on Wayne Bridges who is working in the kitchen.
“Chef Wayne,” Chevalier calls out with the authority of a drill sergeant. “We ready?”
“Almost,” says Bridges, 53, who says he’s blessed to be the man in the kitchen prepping to feed the hungry. Bridges has been sober for four months after four years of living homeless on the streets of Manchester and a lifetime of battling addiction.
“I’ve been addicted to drugs my whole life,” he says. “I was born in New Hampshire but grew up in Florida. We came up for vacation when I was 15, to North Conway, and I told my mom I wasn’t going back.”
In later years, he and his mom ran Classic Beef, a restaurant in North Conway. He knows his way around a kitchen. And now that he’s sober, his mom is happy to have her son back.
When asked what has been the hardest part about his sobriety, he smiles as he begins to pull meat from the turkey bones.
“None of it,” he says. “I guess I was ready for this.”
It was no one thing, Bridges says – just the persistent urging of loved ones and others, like the Chevaliers, who encouraged him to step back into his life with a clear head. And maybe just a little divine intervention.
Mary Chevalier says she sympathizes with Families in Transition. After 13 years of working in the trenches of outreach, she can confirm that it is the opposite of easy.
“It’s a lot to keep an eye on people and to keep them safe,” she says, of FIT’s reluctance to utilize the empty courtyard outside the adult shelter on Manchester Street.
1269 Cafe is a faith-based outreach that grew organically, out of the Chevaliers’ own personal sense of taking action. Inspired by Fred Cheney, a Derry minister who in 2005 spent a week living as a homeless person in and around Manchester, Mary Chevalier was moved to live her faith. “Fred Cheney realized that you have to go to Manchester to get any kind of services.”
So the Chevaliers found a place in Manchester to make a dent, a small storefront at 1269 Elm St. From there, people started donating food and other items. They found a bigger place. They made a lot of “illegal grilled cheese sandwiches” and gave them out. And then they purchased the former St. Casimir school building on Union Street in 2020.
All along they’ve made sure people know that it was through the grace of God that they were operating an outreach, and that God’s grace is another way out of homelessness.
Last year, when they first hatched the idea of an overnight warming shelter, they didn’t know what to expect. Now they do, says Craig Chevalier, who describes their relationship with the city of Manchester as cooperative. It wasn’t always that way. Doing the Lord’s work in these particular trenches sometimes brings chaos. It also reveals a higher truth: Pulling people out of the muck and mire of addiction and homelessness, from the Chevaliers’ experience, requires prayer and divine intervention. In the meantime, meeting the human need, creating boundaries and loving unconditionally are what they’re called to do.
Above – WATCH: Opening night at HOPE for the Winter at the Twelve
At 7:55 p.m. 1269 staff is going through the drill dividing up tasks – who’s going to monitor the bathroom, which areas are “invitation only,” and who will be checking people in. Smoke breaks are unannounced and supervised. Once you’re in you’re in. If you leave, you’re done for the night. Bathroom privileges are also supervised, and you go in order by the sign-up sheet. Only one of their two downstairs bathrooms are utilized for the warming shelter. Two bathrooms was one too many to monitor. Running a tight ship is a learned behavior. Rules are designed to keep everyone safe and are necessary to control the chaos that goes along with the lifestyle.
A mix of mostly dance tunes blares from the speakers which is meant to keep the staff pumped up for the night ahead. At 8 p.m. Craig Chevalier walks into the DJ booth and cues up the Cantina Band song from “Star Wars IV.” It’s tradition.
“We are into ‘Star Wars’ and we always play the cantina song when the doors open,” he says, with a smile. Someone once complained about all the Star Wars movies and songs, and Chevalier directed him to the Marvel warming shelter on the West Side. “He actually wanted to know the address,” Craig Chevalier says, punctuating the inside joke with another wry smile.
Anyone who knows the Chevaliers knows that kind of humor and approach fits with who they are and how they operate. They are a mix of unconditional patience and hard lines, faithful yet bluntly forthright; they totally get the comedy and tragedy of life; they do their best to pass along the peace of God’s understanding to those whose cups runneth empty.
And with that, a dozen people make their way into the cafe, which has several booths set up around a stage area equipped with a drum set. During the day there is music and fellowship. During the overnight warming station hours the lights are often dimmed for those who try to catch a few winks by resting their heads on the tables. There are no sleeping arrangements – just tables and chairs. But it beats being outside.
For some of those who have come through 1269, like Wayne Bridges, there is a narrow pathway to something more. Bridges is now a resident of 1269, which has half a dozen beds upstairs dedicated for those who are ready to take the steps needed to recover from addiction and return to the living. These residents become part of the 1269 family. They do chores and have responsibilities. They earn their keep and know there is little room for error. If they abuse the gift of room and board, they will lose it.
The Chevaliers, although people of faith, were not born into that. He is a marketing professional; she worked in human resources. Their leap of faith into the world of feeding the hungry and ministering to the homeless was more like a push than a leap, which explains their real-world approach.
“It just happened,” Mary Chevalier says, knowing that when you walk with God and he calls you to do something, “it just happens” and there’s no way to stop it, even if you wanted to. And on that note, when asked, she has a simple answer for what can be done to reduce the number of homeless, addicted and hungry in the city.
“When people are entering recovery it’s a long-term transition. We aren’t set up for that,” she says. Most people get 28 days, if they’re lucky, and often have no option but to return to where they came from, which usually sinks them back into the deep end of their troubles.
“It’s hard enough to find someone out there who’s interested in living a sober lifestyle. Sometimes they slip. If they need to go to rehab at 2 a.m., we’ll get them there. But we can only do so much for so many,” she says, and her priority is keeping those in her care on track. That’s why when the city asked if they could open up the warming station a week early due to cold temperatures, it was a hard no. “I would have liked to be able to help but we have to do what we have to do here. We said December 1 and we had to stick to that, for the sake of our guys living here.”
Their small outreach may not be solving the problem, but it is making a difference. “Honestly, we just need more of this. If you have resources, a place where you can take in a few people, do it. Create a place. Do what you can with what you have,” Mary Chevalier says. They have a commercial kitchen, so anyone from the public who enjoys cooking for a crowd should come down and cook their hearts out. Night owls can always consider helping out with the overnight shift.
Anything someone can do is better than doing nothing.
Her partner in winter warming station duty, Keith Howard of HOPE Recovery, explains it this way:
“You know that overused proverb about the kid who’s running along the beach scooping up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean, and some guy comes along and says ‘There must be tens of thousands of them. You’ll never be able to make a difference,’ to which the boy says, as he tosses another starfish back into the ocean, ‘It made a difference to that one.’ Well, that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to make a difference, one starfish at a time,” Howard says.