LACONIA — Most agree that Isaiah 61 Cafe’s plans to establish a cold-weather, low-barrier shelter would be a welcome addition to the city’s support services. However, the nonprofit organization that serves those experiencing homelessness would have to clear a couple of hurdles first.
Last week, Dave and Dawn Longval, founders of Isaiah 61, announced that their organization was purchasing the building known as Pitman’s Freight Room, which is adjacent to their cafe on New Salem Street. The properties are unusual in that the two buildings share a wall. That wall presents one of the two hurdles, the second is that a special exception would be required from the Zoning Board of Adjustment in order for the property to be used as a shelter.
Isaiah 61 Cafe offers a welcoming space to anyone during the mid-day hours. People can come in for a warm meal, cup of coffee or a chance to recline on a couch without being disturbed. Dawn Longval said that while there are shelters in Laconia for her cafe’s regulars to turn to at night, those that currently exist, such as the Carey House and the Belknap House, require sobriety. During the cold months, she said, she had concern for the well-being of her cafe’s regulars who were afflicted with active addiction.
“I see that there’s a gap in services,” Longval said. “It’s great that Carey House and Belknap House are providing services for people in sobriety, but there’s a gap…This is going to fill that gap.”
One of the people cheering the proposal is Mark Haynes, city councilor, who called the news a “blessing.” He noted that the need for a low-barrier shelter – one that will accept people with substances in their system – was noted by the Mayor’s task force on homelessness.
“It’s an answer to the city’s prayer because they’ve been looking for a spot (for such a shelter),” Haynes said. The Isaiah 61 Cafe is already offering services in that area, and has a good track record, he noted. “It’s been there, it’s established, it’s very well done. I think the people do a good job.”
The Longvals’ plan is to move the cafe operation from the current space at 100 New Salem Street into the larger, open space at 94 New Salem, which had been operated as a performance venue and event space for the past several years. A shelter, with between 20 and 30 beds, would then be constructed in the space that currently houses the cafe.
If they could install a double-doorway in the wall that separates the two spaces, then they could operate both without needing twice the volunteer staff. However, it’s not that simple, said Dean Trefethen, planning director for the city.
“In order to put a door in between the two properties, they need to merge the properties together. At present, they are owned by different entities and have different mortgage holders,” Trefethen said, citing state law. The 100 New Salem Street is owned by the Longvals, and the mortgage on the property is through Franklin Savings Bank. The 94 New Salem property is owned by Isaiah 61, and the purchase is financed through the sellers, Dick and Connie Mitchell.
Longval said she and her husband were surprised to learn of this complication – a door can be removed as easily as it can be installed, she said. To resolve the issue, they are exploring the possibility of mortgaging a rental property they own so that they could retire the mortgage on the cafe, then merge the properties.
“I didn’t have any idea that a doorway would cause such problems,” she said.
The second challenge is before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which would be the city body to decide whether to grant a special exception to allow for the shelter in the zone where Isaiah 61 sits. ZBA members evaluate such requests by asking seven questions, as determined by state law, that evaluate the effect such a use would have on things such as pedestrian safety, public utilities, city services and the surrounding properties. If the ZBA denies the request, the Longvals could pursue an appeal. Similarly, the appeals process would also be available to an abutter if a special exception were granted.
Despite the challenges ahead, Longval said she is encouraged by the support the plan has received from the community, and by the donations that have been arriving to help with Isaiah’s mission.
“You know what, God has already supplied and He continues to supply,” Longval said. “I am going to be confident and steadfast with what He has shown me that He wants me to do.”
A little bit of normal
Kelsey Titara, who now lives in Center Harbor, credited Isaiah 61 for her recovery from opioid addiction. Titara grew up in Meredith, and said she became addicted to painkillers as a teenager. Her family physician wrote her a prescription for Vicodin when she was 13, to help her manage menstrual pain.
Titara used that prescription for five years, until she was out of high school and living in Florida. She let the prescription run out, and didn’t realize that her sudden illness was withdrawal symptoms until a friend asked her what medications she had been taking.
“She gave me a percocet and I felt like a normal person,” Titara said. Three years ago, Titara was living in her car in Laconia, using heroin and methamphetamine. She had partial custody of her daughter, who was a toddler at the time, and she said Isaiah 61 Cafe was part of her daily routine. She would pick up her daughter and take her to the cafe, where she knew she would be safe and fed, and where some of the volunteers, trained as educators, made sure her daughter would be prepared for kindergarten.
“Isaiah was a staple for me,” Titara said. "It was just a safe environment for me to bring her. I was homeless, I had no place to go, but she didn’t know that… No matter what, I still had to take care of her. I was as responsible as I could get in my addiction. She was safe, she was fed,” Titara said. And about Dawn Longval she said, “She treated us like family.”
Titara said Isaiah 61 Cafe offered glimpses of normalcy – a chance to take a hot shower, wash her clothes, eat a healthy meal – reminding her of what her life could be like if not for addiction. She made the decision to get clean within a year of walking through the cafe’s doors for the first time.
“I took myself out of that situation. That’s what they try to do, take you out of the situation you’re in. They’ll help you,” Titara said. “I don’t think I would have gotten clean if they didn’t guide me to get clean.”
To contact Adam Drapcho, email AD@laconiadailysun.com.