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Heart for the homeless

Major Mike Davis (right) and Lieutenant Brian Perks, the corps officers in Laconia, N.H. stand in front of The Salvation Army’s Carey House.

Mayor Andrew Hosmer has put together a task force to deal with homelessness in Laconia, N.H. He’s also found Major Mike Davis, the local Salvation Army corps officer, who is uniquely qualified to serve on that force.

Davis is an ordained pastor with a heart for the least of these. As a youngster, he and his family spent more than a year in a Salvation Army shelter. In the early 1980s, Mike, his mother, and older twin sisters lost their group home to a fire in Bridgeport, Conn.

“I was about 5 years old,” Davis said. “I remember just watching our house engulfed in flames and people jumping out of the windows. I remember watching a pregnant woman jump out of the second-floor window and land on a fence.

“Even as the fire trucks were coming, I also remember that the first people to arrive there were in a Salvation Army canteen.”

Young Mike wondered if the canteen was an ambulance. In a way, it was.

“We were rescued by The Salvation Army,” he said. “They saved our family. That’s when my journey began.”

Davis and his family lived in the basement of the Bridgeport Corps and slept on cots. On the weekends, they had to stay with family so their small living space at the corps could be transformed into Sunday school rooms for church.

While living at the corps, Mike and his siblings learned how to play musical instruments and attended Salvation Army youth programs. They also got to hang out with the officers and others around the corps.

“It really shaped me into who I am today,” Davis says.

Davis went on to study at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where he also attended church at The Salvation Army.

People often ask Davis, now 44, if he knew at a young age that he wanted to be an officer. He answers “no.” But as he stayed involved with The Salvation Army and its camping ministries in the ensuing years, he felt God call him into some sort of ministry.


A personal commitment

“Here I am, 15 years as an officer and over 38 years of my life has been part of The Salvation Army,” Davis said. “Everything The Salvation Army taught me, I’m able to use in my life today.”

In August when he arrived in Laconia, someone told him about the Carey House, The Salvation Army’s 40-bed shelter attached to the corps. The shelter is usually full.

Davis also noticed the homeless tent cities that have popped up around Lake Winnipesaukee in this otherwise affluent community.

“I have a heart for the homeless population because I understand what it’s like to be homeless,” Davis says. “I look at homelessness around our country and it holds a soft spot in my heart. People look at other people who are homeless and they think they’re lazy or they’re always on drugs, but that’s not always the case.

“Until you get to know people and get to know their story, you don’t have a right to judge those who are homeless,” he said. “There’s always a story behind why someone is homeless. I think we need to hear those stories about the millions of  lives that are affected by homelessness.”

Laconia is in Belknap County, which actually saw homelessness increase and then drop between 2017 and 2019, according to the annual report of the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness. The county had 60 homeless people in 2017, a number that jumped to 85 in 2018 and then fell to 50 in 2019.

David said that, from April to September, the population surges from 16,000 to more than 100,000 as the area becomes a tourist destination. Sometimes a tent and a sleeping bag are the only relief offered to the homeless.


A problem on multiple fronts

Lieutenant Brian Perks, the assistant corps officer in Laconia, said drug addiction and mental illness also contribute to the local homelessness problem.

“You put homelessness and drug addiction and mental illness together and that just hits people hard,” Perks said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped either,” Davis said. “We’re seeing more and more people become homeless because they’ve lost their jobs,” he said.

Davis said the state of New Hampshire is “trying to do its best” to address homelessness and he knows that Governor Chris Sununu is a Salvation Army supporter. Davis suggested that the local task force in Laconia could find some answers to the homelessness problem if its members “listen to people’s stories” and learn the root causes.

“They may be down on their luck,” Davis says. “Maybe something happened, and a family situation caused them to be homeless. But again, not all homeless people are lazy. Not all homeless people are looking for a handout. I think we need to get away from that stigma. We need to hear their stories and figure out ways to help them move forward and have stability in their lives. It’s not an easy solution, but we can try it. What we’ve tried before hasn’t worked.

“I think we need to do better. I say we as a society need to do better in how we treat the homeless and take care of them. We really need to find a solution. We talk about the problem, but we don’t come up with a solution for the problem. That has to change.”

by Robert Mitchell

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