Slouched in front of a storefront with her head in her hands, “Courtney” is all too familiar with the stares of disgust and verbal abuse, which she and other homeless people face along Manchester, N.H.’s busiest street.
What she is not accustomed to is the love and kindness from the “Mobile Joes,” Captain Mike Harper and ministry assistant Dan LaBossiere of the Manchester, N.H., Corps. Their homeless outreach initiative brightens Courtney’s day with a sandwich and hot coffee from a mobile beverage dispenser LaBossiere lugs through town.
“I have a lot of stress,” Courtney explains. “I need to find food. I need to find a place to sleep. The Salvation Army just helped me out with food.
“It’s great that they’re out here. People do care.”
God in the details
Harper says the vision for “Mobile Joes” was God–ordained.
When Harper and his wife, Major Armida Harper, arrived in Manchester last year, he researched the history of the corps and discovered an annual report from 1967. Inside was a photo of a young officer with a mobile beverage dispenser.
The Harpers have since learned that the officer was Major Richard Smith, who served in the Western Territory and was promoted to Glory in 1998. The Harpers have contacted Smith’s widow and son, who is also an officer.
Harper said when he first saw the photo of Smith, he thought, Why don’t we do that? He researched coffee backpacks on Google and found an online company that made them, but he saved the website for another day.
Going for Pokémon
Last summer, 26–year–old LaBossiere looked for activities the men at the corps could share. They decided to play Pokémon.
“Sometimes, we would just get coffee and walk around the downtown area, playing the game,” LaBossiere recalls. “We said, ‘While we’re out here, just having fun, is there anything we can do?’ We kept walking past these homeless people and there wasn’t really anything we could do for them.”
LaBossiere said the corps sometimes took sandwiches with them to give to the homeless and they prayed with nearly every person.
Harper soon heard General André Cox’s “The Whole World Mobilizing” vision and knew it was the right time to revisit that saved website link. Harper, LaBossiere, and others put their heads together and came up with the “Mobile Joes” concept.
Vision to reality
Once kettle season ended, Harper spent $1,800 to buy two mobile beverage dispensers. The Salvation Factory created a logo for the back of the tanks showing an image of Smith, who heretofore had been known simply as “The 1967 Guy.”
“We wanted to pay homage to the past,” Harper said.
The tanks, which are carried as backpacks, are equipped with a hose, a cup dispenser, and a pump to pressurize beverages. LaBossiere said the unit is not too heavy and “very well balanced.”
In January, Harper and LaBossiere ventured into the cold, carrying sandwiches and coffee. They typically stayed out for about 90 minutes.
“Everyone we spoke to was glad to see us,” Harper said. “They were receptive and would share their stories. We got to pray with almost everyone.
Off the beaten path
“We just wanted this to be a means to create encounters with people. When you just come up to strangers and give them something, it disarms them.”
Harper and LaBossiere venture down alleys, walk through parks, and stroll within sections of the city where homeless people congregate.
“The beauty of this backpack is that we can go where the people are,” Harper said. “For years, we’ve been setting up canteens on street corners. Now, the people don’t have to come to us on a street corner. We’re mobile. We’re going where canteens can’t go.
“We’re meeting people where they are, which is what Jesus did, and we take an interest in them.”
Major Armida said the women of the corps would also like to get involved with “Mobile Joes.”
The mean streets
“I think the beauty of this is, the people that they encounter may never come to church,” Major Armida said. “A lot of the people who are on the streets are there due to either addiction or mental health issues and they’re not going to feel safe going somewhere.
On a recent night, Harper and LaBossiere encountered several homeless people in Manchester’s parks and streets.
“Lynn,” who just found a job at a pizzeria, had enough money to rent a room and get off the streets before someone stole her purse. She said meeting “Mobile Joes” was a welcome reprieve from the people who yell at her, refuse to make eye contact, and consider her less than human for being homeless.
“We’re just trying to get through each day, just like everyone else,” she said. “It’s nice to see that people are actually trying to do something and help us.”
“Diane” and two other homeless women were making plans to sleep “outside somewhere” as dusk approached.
“I’m hungry, so this is wonderful,” she said as she ate her sandwich. “There’s not a lot of people who care about the poor and homeless. God bless them for caring about us.”
Some of the homeless people were effusive with gratitude. Harper gave his card to many of them and even promised a tent to one homeless man.
Better days ahead
Harper and LaBossiere ask each person, “May I pray for you?” So far, every person has accepted the offer, including “Courtney.”
“I’m not much of a believer, but I hope to believe in something some day,” she says after the prayer.
Courtney has recently found a job, but doesn’t have enough money yet to afford a place to live.
“We’re not out here wanting to be homeless or to do drugs or to have suicidal thoughts every second of every day,” she said.
Harper came to The Salvation Army after finding—at a dump—a book about William Booth.
“I say, ‘I can’t fix all of your problems, but we can give you a cup of hot coffee and a sandwich and show you we care about you,’” Harper said. “Nobody says ‘no’ to that.”
Harper continued, “We may not be able to measure the results, but I think a lot of these interactions—where we just come alongside people—are going to be recorded in heaven. That’s what we’re trying to do—be the arms, hands, and feet of Jesus for people.”
Harper hopes to develop enough trust to eventually visit Manchester’s tent cities and do a church service there.
LaBossiere said The Salvation Army, dating back to William and Catherine Booth, has always “gone where the people needed them to go.”
“We see so many people in need just walking around and if there’s something we can do a few hours a night or a couple of times a week, why shouldn’t we?”
They are people
LaBossiere said one homeless man complained that he sat on a downtown bench all day and no one spoke to him.
“For us to say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ is so much more than they are used to hearing,” he said. “They look around to make sure we’re talking to them and not to someone else. They just want to be seen and known by somebody.
“This is just a ministry of coming alongside and expressing God’s love and mercy and acceptance for people who otherwise don’t feel cared about.”
The Harpers came to Manchester with a heart for the homeless after overseeing shelters at the Cambridge, Mass., Corps.
It’s about love
Major Armida, the daughter of retired Lt. Colonels Judy and William LaMarr, said her parents taught her to love the homeless. She knows that some of the people helped by “Mobile Joes” will sadly die without ever finding a home or relief from their addictions and pain.
“If this is the night they are to die, maybe their last memory will be of someone showing them kindness instead of pain,” she says. “It’s always worth it to love somebody—it’s always worth it.”
by Robert Mitchell