Low-budget soup kitchen a model for othersBy ROBERTA BAKER
New Hampshire Union Leader
August 05. 2018 11:46PM
MANCHESTER — Soft strains of “Amazing Grace” and “Build My Mansion” fill the second floor of the old police headquarters on Chestnut Street. Music trickles down the stairwell and booms from inside the room housing the 1269 Cafe, a soup kitchen serving lunch six days a week to the city’s homeless and anyone on the brink.
The atmosphere is nothing like a cafeteria, or the lines to collect unemployment or to straighten out issues with Social Security. Instead it resembles a large, friendly nightclub, with amplifiers and a microphone on a wide center stage, and small tables for two to four people, many of who whom know each other and have been coming for years. At least a quarter are age 60 or older.
On Tuesdays, Peter Beauchemin, age 62 and disabled, drives from Berwick, Maine, to sing gospel with a country beat to a roomful of 70 to 140 listeners, many of whom are past retirement age and grappling with physical and mental disabilities as well as ways to get by on incomes that steadily or frequently drop below subsistence levels. Beauchemin has been singing at soup kitchens in Maine for four years, and now also sings at the Straight Street Soup Kitchen in Rochester, N.H.
“Some have problems with alcohol or drug abuse, or they’ve lost their job and can’t get another one. Some are living paycheck to paycheck. They’re not always unemployed because of something that was their own fault. I try to offer them a little bit of hope,” says Beauchemin, dressed in dark jeans, a navy T-shirt, and black framed glasses, with a modest and ready smile. “I believe Jesus came for these people. I don’t preach unless someone asks me. I let the music be the message. You might say I sing for my supper.”
At a time when municipalities and states are flummoxed by how to bring services, food and shelter to a transient and vulnerable population — typically unwelcome on town and city main streets and in residential neighborhoods — churches and Christian groups are stepping up to the plate by doing what the Bible proclaims.
“When I was naked, you clothed me. When I was hungry, you fed me. The Bible tells us to love others as we love ourselves,” says Mary Chevalier, co-director of 1269 Cafe with her husband Craig. “We’re officially an outreach ministry to homeless and people on the edge. We try to be a safety net. If someone is having a stumble, maybe we can catch them and give them a foot up.”
“For me it’s helping broken people in a small way,” says Brent Clarke, cafe manager, who has volunteered for six years. “Most are humble. Most need help and they know it. Many of them are grateful.”
The long-term solution may require collaboration and increased communication between religious groups, local and state governments, and business leaders who can come up with ways to address homelessness locally, according to service providers for the population.
The good news is that 1269 Cafe, which has been feeding the indigent and unsheltered for nine years on what the government would consider a shoestring budget, can easily be reproduced, Chevalier says.
So far, it has inspired a similar outreach: in June, Dawn and David Longval of Sanbornton opened Isaiah 61 Cafe across from the Salvation Army Thrift Store in Laconia; the soup kitchen, with showers and lockers, currently serves about 40 at lunch, and has become a hub for volunteers and homeless outreach workers in the Lakes Region.
“The attitude is religious in the sense that everyone is expected to treat each other with brotherly love, and we appreciate the Christian fellowship,” says Cherryl Hutchins, 64, a regular patron at 1269 Cafe who lives nearby in a room at the Cadillac Hotel, where she frequently heats up mini pizzas or chicken patties in the microwave oven.
Social Security disability checks give her enough to get by each month, if she comes here for lunch.
“I have a history with people here,” she says, pointing to a former fellow student from her high school in Pembroke. “People come here from tents by the river, sometimes from Nashua or other places. There are people here who praise this place, heaven and earth. They feel they wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this place.”
The cafe model has been used worldwide to solve societal problems in small, personal settings, putting volunteers to work helping those in need, without the salary costs or bureaucracy of government agencies. The 1269 Cafe — the name refers to the Cafe’s prior address on Elm Street — serves roughly 700 meals a week, Sunday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., but regulars often come at 11 and stay until 1 p.m. to socialize.
Catholic Charities, through its New Hampshire Food Bank, provides hot meals that volunteers serve from a small prep area. The costs of rent, insurance, and utilities are covered by private donations from volunteers, board members and a handful of churches: Orchard Christian Fellowship in Londonderry, First Assembly in Auburn, Shiloh Community Church in Goffstown, Faith Baptist Church in Manchester, and Bethany covenant Church in Bedford. Grace Episcopal Church, Manchester Vineyard Church, and the “Do You Know Him?” outreach ministry and Hope Tabernacle in Manchester serve breakfast on rotating Saturdays — the one day Cafe1269 is closed.
The hot shower has a sign-up list. The “Compassion Closet” stocks donated clothes and shoes, and sundries from toothbrushes to adult diapers. The cafe’s pantry on Thursday and Sunday provides fresh vegetables, day-old baked goods, and packaged deli meats donated by Hannaford supermarkets in Nashua and Bedford, courtesy of the chain’s “Fresh Rescue” program. The cafe’s yearly budget, including donations, totals roughly $75,000, Chevalier says.
“Back in biblical times, there were beggars on the street. There’s always been homelessness,” she says. “Our big mission is restoring dignity. If you need a hug because you’ve had a rough day, we give hugs. If we don’t have a singer we play music so people can just have a friendly place to be. We try to make it a familiar, safe, and comfortable environment.”
Chevalier welcomes imitators.
“Open your doors! If you have a coffee pot and a church basement you can do this. It’s mostly just having a heart. This cafe can be franchised for free.”
Silver Linings is a continuing Union Leader/Sunday News report focusing on the issues of New Hampshire’s aging population and seeking out solutions. Union Leader reporter Roberta Baker would like to hear from readers about issues related to aging. She can be reached at email@example.com or (603) 206-1514. See more at www.unionleader.com/aging. This series is funded through a grant from the Endowment for Health.