MANCHESTER, NH — Shortly before 12:30 p.m. every Sunday in front of a park in Manchester, a few vehicles pull in from various side streets. Inside these vehicles are all manner of items: clothing, books, bottled water, pop tarts, granola bars, cough drops, hand warmers, toothbrushes, bars of soap, shampoo, tampons, coffee, and pizza donated from Portland Pie Company on Elm Street. The vehicles belong to members of Mutual Aid and Defense New Hampshire (MAD NH for short).
Now in its second year, they have been running an outreach program in Manchester aimed at filling in the gaps the shelters, the state, and other charitable organizations leave open. Food stamps, for example, does not pay for toothpaste or deodorant, two items it is commonly accepted are necessary to make a good impression at a job interview.
Mutual Aid is a term popularized by author Peter Kropotkin when he wrote a book by this name in 1902. Up until then, the prevailing belief among anarchists of his day was that individual anarchism and no-laws anarchism would be sufficient to maintain individual liberty. However, Kropotkin discovered that, on a small scale, communities of people helping one another leads to more beneficial results than those that do not employ such help. He drew his theory of mutual aid in part from Charles Darwin, stating that those who referenced Darwinism to mean survival of the fittest overlooked Darwin’s ideas about animal groups helping one another. While predators and prey may be at odds over contending interests, tribes of predator animals and tribes of prey animals among themselves take action to ensure the survival of as many members of the group as possible. From this information, as well as his observances in real life, Kropotkin surmised that mutual aid was a beneficial factor in the continued evolution of any species.
It is upon this principle that MAD NH is founded.
In a prepared statement, MAD NH wrote the following:
“MAD NH believes strongly in the idea of Mutual Aid vs charity. Charity is a top down approach that never empowers the local community it serves. Instead, it shackles them to the very system that has failed them in the first place. Often it has little positive effect on the marginalized communities it serves and instead seeks to fulfill the wishes of those funding it, whether they be religious or statist or otherwise. Mutual Aid is the act of the community helping themselves on their own terms- coming together in a democratic fashion and locking arms. Unlike charity, the overall goal is to empower communities to solve problems and work together for the good of all. It’s empowerment vs. entrenchment. Whereas charity entrenches those in poverty to stay dependent on it, Mutual Aid empowers those in poverty to solve issues in good faith.”
MAD NH has been there every Sunday — rain, shine, snow, blistering cold, or otherwise. The group began by simply offering items out of their trunks. Items were scarce, attendance was low. As time passed and the weather worsened, more and more people came out every weekend. More and more people donated clothing or other items. The group had to find folding tables and more plastic bins in which to keep donated items.
Now, tables are lined with items. A long row of perhaps a dozen bins stretch out on the pavement, each of them filled with clothing of all kinds, shapes, and sizes. The pizza served disappears quickly. Of late, there is at least one donated vegan pizza. Due to regulations regarding food preparation, MAD NH does not make its own food. Everything provided is produced by a third party. No medicine is offered which cannot be obtained without a prescription.
The books on offer, while few, contain a good variety. They range from books by Isaac Asimov to dog-earred worn texts on the history of the first World War. MAD NH is one of the few places to offer free books to the homeless in Manchester. The public library system, as a general rule, does not give homeless people library cards. Thus, someone who is homeless and wants to read may have a difficult time finding material to their liking.
On the whole, lunch is difficult to find in Manchester on the weekends. While a cafe called 1269 provides lunches during the weekdays, Sunday it only does so after a church service. Those who do not want to attend church have the option of coming to the park. MAD NH is not a religious organization and is not affiliated with any church.
Clothing is also a challenge — as is the transportation of clothing a person has. Some homeless people only have one or two sets of clothing. People often come looking for hats and gloves to survive winter’s coldest months. MAD NH has also given out ponchos and Mylar survival blankets for people who are sleeping rough regardless of the weather.
The need has been so great, in fact, that the group held a fundraiser on February 1 at a private club in Manchester. The fundraiser was a success for the group; the money raised went right back into providing needed items for the homeless population of Manchester.
Not everyone comes every week, either. Different people come on different weeks. By the time the group packs up at 2:30 p.m., there is no leftover pizza. A great deal of coffee has been consumed. The clothes, once neat and orderly, have been thoroughly picked through. Some of the books might be gone as well. Anbesol and Neosporin are regularly needed.
The group also runs a similar outreach event in Rochester. For the group’s volunteers, much of their free time outside of work is dedicated toward helping the group and making sure the week’s outreach events go well. At each outreach event, no one is turned away. Everyone is welcome to come regardless of who they are and what they’re going through. Regardless of where someone is sleeping — whether in an apartment, a house, a shelter, or on the streets — MAD NH does its best to make sure everyone has warm clothing to wear, good food to eat, decent medicine, and sufficient hygiene items.
While other organizations focus on fatality prevention, MAD NH wants to do more. They want to make sure that every homeless person lives with as much dignity and comfort as can be found in a situation as difficult as having no permanent residence. If their weekly events continue going as they have been, they’re going to need more vehicles.
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MAD NH has an active GoFundMe to help defray the cost of necessities such as socks, gloves, toiletries, sleeping bags and more. For a full list of needed supplies and to donate, click here.