New Hampshire Shelter offers hope
Tom Ryan arrived at the Edna McKenna House in Concord, N.H., two years ago when his mother entered a nursing home and he had nowhere else to go.
“I was drinking a lot,” said Ryan, who went to rehab while in the Salvation Army–run shelter.
Ryan was a resident of McKenna House for six months before he received a staff position and then was hired as the house manager a year ago. Speaking from his experience on both sides of the desk, Ryan said the shelter is a success because it’s a “caring place.”
“I’ve stayed at other shelters before, but this is totally different,” he said. “This is humane compared to the other shelters.
“They give you resources to better yourself. The other shelters did nothing. You would go there, sleep there, and then, you’re gone. These people here try to help you find work, give you direction, and some type of hope. I’m very grateful for this place.”
Ryan is one of many extraordinary success stories coming out of the shelter in recent years. Major Rick Starkey, the corps officer in Concord who oversees both the corps and McKenna House, said the shelter’s success rate is as high as 80 percent.
“It’s very, very successful, but that success is different, depending on who the person is and what we’re looking to accomplish,” Starkey said.
The residents are often looking for a job, housing, education, or a vehicle.
“We consider it a success if they come in and we’re able to help them get one of those things. It’s two for some of them,” he said. “We’re full all the time. This is so much better than just a warming shelter.”
Starkey said people can live in the shelter, which employs two part–time and two full–time staffers, for up to a year.
“They may get a job while they’re living in the shelter, but they may not make enough money or have a place to live,” he said. “We teach them budgeting and other life skills.”
The program fee is only $10 a day, but shelter residents can do 20 hours of community service instead and many choose to work at the corps or at a thrift store.
Geno Hanc, for example, put his culinary arts degree to use by serving as the house cook.
Hanc’s road to the McKenna House started when he and his long–lost brother, Nick, found themselves in jail together a few years ago.
“It was the first time I ever spent Christmas with family, as sad as that may sound,” Geno says. “I had a tough upbringing and never had family in my life.”
Nick had recently been kicked out of the McKenna House for violating the shelter’s rules. If he could do one thing over, he told Geno, he would go back and make things right.
Geno said, “‘You know what, Nick? I’m going to go to the McKenna House and do it for you.’ That was my promise to him. That’s why I’m here. I’m showing my brother that he can do it too.
“Getting out of jail, I wanted to go somewhere safe where I could transition back into a good standing in the community and work on my sobriety.”
Geno recently found permanent housing, but he also realized that being the house cook was therapeutic.
“I love cooking for the house and these people. That keeps me sober. That gives me purpose for living and for moving on. Preparing a big meal two or three times a week, and just getting 42 people to be silent, that’s where I find pleasure. They’re eating my food and enjoying it.”
Living in the shelter allowed Geno to save money after he landed a job as a cook at one of Concord’s best restaurants. Geno, who has a long history working in restaurants, soon had a bank account and was on his way.
“I’m learning that it’s not scary to succeed,” he said. “It’s not scary to pick yourself up when you fall.”
Hanc also received spiritual support and would sometimes go to the corps, which is just a few doors down from the shelter, where he heard Major Starkey and his wife, Bethany, preach.
“It seems like every time I go, they’re talking to me, even though there’s a room full of people,” he said in amazement. “It gives me solace.
“That feeling can carry you through the day and through the week. The message is there. The love is always there. I like that feeling. It doesn’t go away.”
Hanc, who was in and out of foster care as a child, says the McKenna House saved his life.
“I’d be in prison right now if it wasn’t for the McKenna House,” he said. “This place has done miracles for me and I’m very grateful for it.”
Kathy Tilton, 61, lived in her car for five months last winter before coming to the McKenna House. Her constant companion was her dog, a chocolate Labrador retriever named “Hershey Kisses.”
“We did okay, but I was using all my money to keep the heat on in the car because I’m a diabetic,” she said.
It was hard to inject her insulin and find somewhere to use the restroom, but she struggled along until getting into McKenna House.
“It was warm,” she said. “I met people. It was a nice place. They saved me by giving me a warm place and listening. They were there for me. They showed me love. They cared.
“I got a family there. I wasn’t used to something like that. I never thought I’d be homeless. I always wondered how people live that way and I became one of them.
“I was able to save and I had my own monies to buy an apartment.”
Tilton volunteered at the corps to pay her program fees. Today, she volunteers at the corps and works the front desk at McKenna House.
“The McKenna House will save you if you want to be saved,” she said. “If you want to make it work, you can. They saved my life.”
Scott Perry had almost nine years of sobriety under his belt. Then his 16–year–old son died.
“Slowly but surely, I ended up going back to the drinking,” said Perry, who soon lost his job, his family, and a place to live.
Perry tried to commit suicide before coming to McKenna House. He worked as a volunteer staffer, then left recently after a year–long stay.
“This gave me an opportunity to work on my sobriety first and then transition back into life,” he said. “I had to learn how to deal with the grief of my son’s death and to live life without drinking.
“The McKenna House allowed me to baby–step my way into getting better, staying sober, and getting a job.”
Perry would often go to the corps and pray in the chapel.
“I’ll pray and cry and pray and cry for about 45 minutes,” he said. “I kind of gave up on God after my son passed. But now, I find that the more time I spend in the chapel, the more I reconnect with God.
“When I first came here, I used to hate waking up every morning,” he says. “Now, every morning when I wake up, it’s a blessing. I’m glad I wake up. I look forward to what today has to offer and I look at today only.
“When we come here, we’ve hit rock bottom. We don’t see any hope down the road. This place gives us hope.”
Liz Crabtree lived at McKenna House five years ago, but today, she is the case manager. She found structure, support, and guidance—and a lot of love—to tackle her drug and alcohol issues.
“It led me to self–motivate and succeed in getting out of here and into housing,” she said.
“The love of the staff projects out and it spreads. This is a self–motivating program, and without that love, I don’t think I would have been able to get on my feet again.”
Crabtree, who is earning her associate’s degree in human services, said she eventually found housing, health, and therapy. Then she sought employment and saved enough money and bought a vehicle.
“They loved me here when I couldn’t love myself,” she said. “I found that ‘self–love,’ and, with a lot of help and love and courage, I was able to motivate and kind of pull myself out of that rut I was in.
“They really helped me. They carried me when I couldn’t walk, and when I got up, I just started running. I think this place does that for a lot of people, if they want it.”
Scott Hinchee’s drinking problem brought him to the McKenna House last year. He is now the custodian at the Concord Corps.
“I pretty much lost everything I had,” Hinchee explained. “Alcohol was a big part of it. I lost good jobs. I’ve been trying to change since then. This has been a great help.”
Hincheee, who has battled alcohol for 45 years, also started coming to the corps on Sundays for worship and is seeing his life turn around.
“God has been a big part of it,” he says. “I was away from God for years. I had lost God in my life. I found Him again.
“The Salvation Army has been a big influence on what I am today. I’m not the same person I was. I’m trying to do better every day.”
Jenny Connor–Belcourt, who has been the director of McKenna House since 2016, said its faith–based nature is a key to its success.
“A lot of the people who work here are spiritual people and there’s a lot of prayer for the shelter,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that’s why this program is so successful.
“We have case management and really good people who work here and care. People are held accountable. It’s a program of responsibility and accountability.”
It’s hard to miss the subtle messages on wall hangings around the shelter. 1 Corinthians 13 is emblazoned on a staircase.
“I’m pretty open about spiritual things,” she said.
Conner–Belcourt, who was homeless a few times in her life, grew up in an alcoholic home and moved around a lot. She went to church as a kid, but fell away. While camping on her father’s property alone one summer, all she had to read was a New Testament.
“I had a spiritual awakening during that time and I decided to change my life,” she said.
Jenny moved to the west coast to attend college. Today, she sees herself in some residents.
“They need to walk the walk,” she said. “Asking for God’s help is crucial. We offer a hand up, not a handout. I’m kind of tough in that way.”
by Robert Mitchell