LACONIA — The people who live at the boarding house at 736 Union Avenue have a name for their building: the Fresh Start House.
“Everybody here gets a fresh start, trash stays outside the door,” said Jim Newell. Newell should know. He was homeless when he got a room there in September 2016. A year later, the building’s owner, Jon Bedell, hired him to take over the management of the building.
Since then, Newell has taken it upon himself to reverse the boarding house’s appearance, and its practices.
“It ain’t never going to be perfect, because it ain’t new construction. But Jon has taken this a long way,” Newell said. But when he first came into the building, “it was going downhill fast,” he said.
Previous management that Bedell employed permitted illicit drug use and partying, Newell said. The prior manager also billed Bedell for repairs that were never made. And the building earned a reputation that, he said, is now out-of-date.
“This is not a house of junkies. Yes, it used to be,” Newell said. Instead, the building is now populated with people who are trying to stabilize their lives, often after homelessness.
The boarding house at 736 Union is a place where someone can do that, he said, because it is located within walking distance to several places of employment, and because rooms there are affordable to people living on those wages.
There are 13 rooms in the building – five doubles, eight singles. The smallest rooms, with enough room for a single mattress and just enough space to walk around, cost $400 per month. Doubles go for up to $550. Every room is rented, and the 15 residents share four bathrooms, a common area and two kitchens.
The affordability was what drew Belinda Minch, who has been living there since July. She works at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Gilford, and the boarding house allows her to keep more of her paycheck. Before she moved in, she was paying $600 for her share of an apartment in Meredith.
“Before that, I was homeless, I was living in my car for, like, three months,” she said.
“There’s a lot of people from a lot of different situations,” Newell said of his residents. “There are issues – we have our little spats – but it’s safe,” he said.
Josh Poor from “way up north” in Maine, came to Laconia because of a girl. “It didn’t work out, I ended up staying,” he said. He has stayed at the boarding house through four landlords now, and said that now that the drug use has been evicted, there’s a familial atmosphere about the building.
“It’s fun, it’s almost like a family around here after a while,” Poor said. “Before, it used to be drugs, all that (stuff),” but not anymore. “Now, we all get along. It’s like living in a regular home, with a family.”
A relatively new member of the “family,” Dennis Smith, 67, moved in three months ago. Smith ran an apartment building in Laconia for more than 40 years, until, he said, a family member conned him into selling it to her in exchange for a promise that she would renovate it and let him live there rent-free. Once he signed over the property, she shut off the water and power. He lived in the apartment, unheated and without water, for six years, then, after a short stay in the hospital, he came home to find new locks on the doors.
“I was on the streets, the city helped my find this place,” Smith said, adding that living on Union Avenue allows him to access what he needs, and a few things he wants.
“I like it here,” he said. “It’s convenient, especially without a vehicle. I can go to the river and go fishing, and have some activities.”
Kyle Bigler, 27, has lived there for a year. He was homeless before he moved in, couch surfing and living in a tent, even though he worked full-time.
“I pay $125 per week for child support, so, combined with other expenses, I couldn’t afford to pay $800 per month (for an apartment),” Bigler said. He was working at Dunkin’ Donuts, when a co-worker who was living at the boarding house suggested he talk to Newell.
“It’s fantastic, it’s an adjustment living under a roof and not having to worry about the weather,” said Bigler, who now works for Laconia Ice, bagging ice and delivering it all over New Hampshire and parts of Massachusetts and Maine. When he becomes ready to look for an apartment, Bigler said, he will now have a landlord and property manager who can provide a referral for him, something he wouldn’t have if he were still sleeping on friends’ couches.
Bigler first had a smaller room, but now he shares the boarding house’s largest room with Alyson Ladoucer, 20, who came to 736 Union after bouncing back and forth between her parents’ homes.
“It just wasn’t working, I had a lot of disagreements with my parents, not a safe environment to stay in. Moving here, I feel comfortable in a room with people. I can get up and not be afraid to walk outside,” Ladoucer said.
Newell doesn’t require a security deposit, and, as a man with a history of his own, he is willing to consider tenants despite what be in their past. Newell’s homelessness followed a prison term he served for a 1988 conviction for aggravated felonious sexual assault. The boarding house gave him an avenue out of what he called “Hobo Beach,” and a new chapter in life.
There’s a variety of ages and circumstances at 736 Union, but Newell said everyone there has something in common: “A need not to be judged, and a fresh start.”
“That’s all I wanted, was a fresh start,” Ladoucer said.