MANCHESTER, NH – Peter Kelleher, a Massachusetts man who runs the New England charity Support the Soupman for people experiencing homelessness, brought a three-stall shower trailer to the parking lot behind the former St. Casimir school at 456 Union Street Tuesday.
They opened the showers to homeless people at about 9 a.m. and Kelleher estimates about 30 or 40 people used it in the first few hours.
Folks came and lined up six feet apart with masks provided for those who didn’t have one. After each use of the trailer, volunteers scrubbed and sanitized it before the next person used it.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Lisa, 56, a homeless resident of Manchester who declined to share her last name.
Kelleher said people are given a free backpack and a set of new clothes if they use the shower.
He said the $50,000 trailer was donated to the organization by New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft through his Kraft Family Foundation. Kelleher said he worked with Manchester Alderman Bill Barry on bringing the trailer to Manchester.
“Bill and I have been working on this for over a year,” he said.
Barry stopped by the trailer Tuesday morning after taking a tour of the St. Casimir school building, which was recently purchased by 1269 Cafe from the Catholic Diocese of Manchester.
“I’m very happy with their plan,” Barry said of 1269 founders Mary and Craig Chevalier.
Eventually, Kelleher said he plans on returning with the trailer and leaving it at the parking lot for a few weeks. They just need to find someone to install a new fence around the lot for free.
After four showers are installed – two for men and two for women – and ready to be used inside the building, and when it becomes too cold to use the trailer, Kelleher will pick it up for the winter. But he said it’s his ultimate plan to donate the trailer to 1269 permanently.
Barry said some people in the city react with negative attitudes to the homeless population, but he said it’s the city’s obligation to help where it can.
“They’re still people and it’s our responsibility as a community to give them the assistance that they need,” Barry said.
Lisa said she previously owned a home and held down good jobs, but she became homeless about four months ago after her family spent thousands of dollars on rehab and sober living, and she relapsed.
“I’m an alcoholic,” Lisa said. “I made bad choices. It is what it is.”
Lisa hopes to get her life back together. And while she has alienated her family as a result of her substance use disorder and her choices, she said, she has also made some of the best friends she’s ever had on the streets.
“Just because you’re homeless, doesn’t mean you’re a loser,” Lisa said.
Kris, 30, also from Manchester, said she has been homeless for the last couple of years, off and on. She also struggles with substance use, she said, and has been sober for six or seven months of that time.
So far, she said she is now two-weeks sober. Except for a couple exceptions, she has been able to find places to stay with “friends” who let her crash at their place, but usually in exchange for money or other favors, she said.
Kris said she was especially grateful to be able to shower without any strings attached.
“1269 is awesome. You can go there during the day,” she said.
1269 Cafe is still operating out of the former Manchester Police station at 351 Chestnut St., providing food, coffee and a place to hang out, according to Mary Chevalier.
But the new building, with about 20,000 combined square feet between three floors plus a basement, is much more space than the roughly 4,500 square feet they are currently using on Chestnut Street.
Chevalier declined to discuss the finances of the purchase, which she said was finalized last Wednesday. According to the Hillsborough County Registry of Deeds, the building sold for $555,000.
“The nut to cover will be the same, we figure,” Chevalier said. “We would not have bought this building if it would put us in a hole.”
The Chevaliers are currently in the process of renovating the space, with plans to use the basement for the cafe, kitchen and gathering space in the first phase. The first floor will be rented out to Rise Up Staffing, a temp-to-permanent staff agency, and Better Life Partners, a medication-assisted treatment provider that offers suboxone for opioid addiction.
Chevalier said they will put in up to 32 beds on the second floor, in a dorm-style arrangement with about eight to 10 beds per room. She says she doesn’t like using the word “shelter” to describe this endeavor.
“Shelter, to me, is something very temporary – show up, get a bed, leave in a day or when you get paid. Housing, to me, is more of a commitment,” she said.
There will also be cubicle space for one-on-one meetings, to be used for other local organizations such as Health Care for the Homeless, the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester and others, or for family reconciliation.
The third floor has an auditorium and a space for a library. Their long-term plan is to add some respite beds for people in addiction crisis, and for women escaping human trafficking.
Chevalier said the goal is to keep the place drug- and alcohol-free, and they hope to provide people a safe and stable place to stay, learn how to cohabitate with others, reconcile with family and get on the road to becoming self-sufficient.
She declined to comment how much the renovations would cost but said they are currently accepting donations, since they are a privately-funded charity that gets no government funding.
Craig Chevalier said they try to make it a “family-type environment” that treats people with dignity, and they have found that doing that and getting to know the people makes it easier to encourage them to get into rehab if they need to.