LACONIA — It was less than three years ago that Dawn and Dave Longval opened the Isaiah 61 Cafe. Not exactly a soup kitchen, the organization welcomes all who would appreciate a cup of coffee, a meal, use of a shower or laundry facilities, or just a soft chair. In that time, the Longvals have become attuned to the needs of the local homeless community, and to better address those needs they have announced the purchase of the adjacent building on New Salem Street.
Known recently as the performance venue Pitman’s Freight Room, the addition of nearly 5,000 square feet of space will allow Isaiah 61 to provide a place for just about anyone to escape the cold of winter nights.
Isaiah 61 Café was established after the Longvals, who had been bringing food to homeless people in Laconia, learned that there was nowhere in the city that felt welcoming to people who couldn’t afford to pay for a cup of coffee or a sandwich. Even in public spaces, they would be shooed away by police if more than a handful of them were found congregating. The café created that space, a place they could be welcomed, have a meal, meet friends and attend to basic needs during the day – or take a nap on a couch.
Through the relationships they formed in the cafe, the Longvals realized that their friends needed someplace to go after the cafe closed in the afternoon – especially in the winter. Yes, there are shelters in the city, but they come with barriers. Notably, the existing shelters require that the person pass a drug screen before they can get a bed. Some also charge a nominal amount, which is still prohibitive to some.
Dawn and Dave have rules prohibiting substance use on their property, but they don’t turn someone away merely for intoxication. Over time, this has allowed them to build relationships with people – and then to worry in the winter how they will survive frigid nights exposed to the weather.
“There’s no place here, you have to be sober to go to the Salvation Army, you have to be sober to go to the Belknap House,” Dawn said, but that can be a deal breaker for someone with substance misuse disorder.
Another relationship developed while they were running their cafe – with the owner of the adjacent property, which shares a wall with the building the Longvals own. Dick and Connie Mitchell operated Pitman’s Freight Room for several years, and Dawn once approached them previously to ask if they would want to sell. No, was the answer at the time. But then the pandemic happened, resulting in a pause in the performance promotion business, and the Mitchells decided that the time was right for retirement. Papers are expected to be passed today, March 31.
The Longvals plan to move their cafe operation into the Pitman’s building, which the Mitchells have already fashioned into a comfortable, living room-like space. They will use the current cafe space to create a shelter, with about 20-30 beds, separated into men’s and women’s quarters, which will be available at night during the coldest weeks of the year.
“We want to take care of them and make sure they survive,” Dawn said.
During the warmer seasons, the shelter space will serve as housing for members of their community who have found their way to sobriety but are still forming a financial foundation for themselves.
“In the off season, I’m thinking of it as more of a transitional space, for people who have overcome their addiction but can’t quite get their first apartment,” Dawn said. “It would be a transition into the real world… We know who’s ready and who’s not.”
Dawn said she plans to spend the summer studying how other low-barrier shelters work, then open Isaiah’s in time for next winter.
Daisy Pierce, a leader in the Laconia recovery community and a member of the Mayor’s task force on homelessness, said such a shelter would fill a gap in services.
“It’s amazing, it’s what Laconia needs at this time,” she said. The task force is currently working to set up a temporary shelter for the rest of the current cold season, “it’s great that there will be one stood up for next winter.”
Resting in an armchair at Isaiah 61 Cafe, Cindy Field said the cold weather shelter “is very important. Because people are out there who need someplace to sleep without having the cops telling them to move along.”
Field said that spending winter nights outside is “very hard - and cold. You have a lot of blankets,” she said, and those who do find a somewhat sheltered place then worry about getting kicked out in the middle of the night.
Erna Anijarwati spend much of the winter struggling to survive the cold, though she now has found overnight shelter thanks to a local church.
“It’s very important to have a shelter to stay indoors, especially during the winter season. I experienced sleeping outside for two months, December to the end of January. It was really hard,” Anijarwati said.
For Anijarwati, it wasn’t sobriety that was the issue, it was the $10 per night fee that she couldn’t afford at another shelter.
It’s not just uncomfortable to stay outside all winter, Anijarwati said. It starts to take a toll on one’s overall wellbeing. Even if she found a place to stay at night, she would only get two or three hours of sleep. When she finally found shelter, she realized how her health had suffered from the lack of sleep.
"I give thanks for Dawn and Dave, who help those in need, to feed them and give them shelter,” Anijarwati said.