Manchester’s New Horizons shelter welcomes veterans for five-course dinner

MANCHESTER – With walls draped in red, white and blue and the sounds of big band music filling the air, it was easy to mistake Sunday night’s dinner at New Horizons for a welcome home party for war-weary GIs, fresh off a victory over Axis forces.

Some in attendance were veterans, but few – if any – had homes to welcome them.

Last night, the New Horizons center on Manchester Street hosted the second annual Bellwether Community Credit Union Dinner, serving a five-course meal to members of Manchester’s homeless community. This year the event was held on Veterans Day, allowing participants the opportunity to help homeless veterans enjoy a hot meal on a day set aside to honor them for their service.

“The fact that this year it is being held on Veterans Day makes it really a special event, because we serve so many veterans in our shelters on a regular basis,” said New Horizons Executive Director Charlie Sherman. “On an average night, 12 percent of the people that stay in the shelter are veterans. Last year, the dinner was a week earlier, but by moving it up to today it really gives us a chance to say thank you and help them out.”

According to the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness, on any given day in the Granite State there are about 2,248 homeless people.

An annual count of homeless people conducted across New Hampshire shows an 18 percent increase over 2010. New Horizons helped serve 253 persons who experienced homelessness for the first time, with an average of 73 people in their shelters each night in 2011.

This year’s Veterans Day dinner included salad, rolls and butter, an entree and dessert, with the main meal consisting of either lamb or chicken.

“With Bellwether underwriting the event, we were really able to step things up,” said Sherman. “From the linen table cloths to the food, to even the band, their support really helped take the dinner to another level.”

Employees from Bellwether Credit Union helped set up for the dinner throughout the day Sunday, as well as serve the meals. In all, over 20 employees volunteered. Even the band, the Freese Brothers Big Band, features a Bellwether employee and performed for free.

“This is the second time we’ve sponsored the event, and it’s just a great way to give back to the community,” said Lori Eldridge, human resources coordinator for Bellwether Credit Union. “We’re just proud to do it. There is such a need for this. We have regular volunteers from Bellwether who help here at the shelter during the week, but this is a nice way for them to get their families involved.”

Sherman said the need is great, and growing. Last year, the New Horizons Food Pantry distributed 13,324 bags of food to individuals, children and families. The New Horizons Soup Kitchen served 80,384 meals.

Just before the doors opened to the dinner Sunday, roughly 100 people were lined up waiting for a hot meal.

“It’s tough on me, but this makes it a little easier,” said Tom Bicknell, a dinner attendee who said he served in Vietnam. “I didn’t know what it would be like tonight, but this is good. This is good.”

New Horizons offers veterans services, after receiving sub-grantee grants. A part-time vocational manager and full-time case manager work specifically with homeless veterans. In its first month of service, 14 veterans were screened through the shelter, which provided employment and supportive services to seven of them.

“We have a case worker whose only job is to work with homeless veterans, or veterans who are on the verge of homelessness, and their schedule is full every day,” said Sherman. “It’s not just feeding people. There’s a lot of compassion in this place.”