FIVE YEARS ago, Londonderry resident Craig Chevalier and a few friends made an effort to get to know the homeless as part of a church project.
They went to Veterans Park in Manchester — a better place than most for their research — and Chevalier started striking up conversations. He spoke to a few, but the one he latched onto was Raymond Rheault, who was then 51 and had been on and off the streets for three decades.
Chevalier shared sandwiches and hot soup with Rheault, who shared his tales of street life.
Rheault invited Chevalier and his family to a succession of rooms he'd rent out in rooming houses. Chevalier in turned visited Rheault in other lodgings that weren't as homey — the Valley Street jail, the hospital, a local nursing home.
And as Chevalier's interest grew in ministering to the homeless, Rheault provided entrees — and warnings when needed — to the denizens of his world.Within a year, Chevalier partnered with Marine veteran Jerry Goncolo to open 1269 Cafe, a coffee shop of sorts for the homeless. Chevalier calls Rheault his inspiration for doing so; he wanted a warm place to sit and talk to his friend.
Eighteen months ago, 1269 Cafe moved to Hanover Street — a parking lot away from one of the most expensive restaurants in the city. Supported by area Christian churches, the cafe now hosts a weekly food pantry, and self-help programs ranging from Bible study to anger management classes.
It's even launched the Fork and Spoon Diner next door. The plan is to use the restaurant to generate revenues for the mission and give a homeless person or two a job.
Most Sundays, the cafe's worship service is crammed with 75 people. A follow-up brunch feeds as many as 175, Chevalier said. In the coming days, Cafe 1269 will host four Thanksgiving meals, along with give-aways of warm clothes and personal items.
It's a smaller, more intimate version of the New Horizons food pantry and soup kitchen, and it believes in filling the soul as well as the stomach.
"Government organizations are great, but the one thing they don't do is love people," Chevalier said. Then on Nov. 7, Rheault — whom Chevalier calls the inspiration and founder-emeritus of 1269 — died at a friend's house. Suffering for about a year with health problems, the homeless man took off his oxygen mask and slipped away.Chevalier's Teddy Bear had his grisly side.
According to past New Hampshire Union Leader articles, Rheault had been arrested for stabbing a friend in the neck with a knife (the person had tossed out his belongings). Then he got arrested for threatening the man during his arraignment.
At the cafe on Sunday, I heard a story of him once pulling a Bowie knife on a fellow rooming house resident.
And when he was 32, police sent him for psychiatric treatment after he held a knife on his girlfriend. Rheault's attitude at the Valley Street jail got him thrown in solitary confinement for months at a time. Once he received $20,000 from the county, claiming in a lawsuit he was deprived of psychiatric care while in The Hole. His mug shot features a nasty scowl protruding from a thick mustache and neatly combed gray hair.
That scowl moderates but is still evident in photos taken with Chevalier and Mayor Ted Gatsas when 1269 Cafe opened its new location.
Others saw the lovable side of Rheault.
Decades ago, Manchester resident Jamie Lee used to sneak out of her apartment to hit the bars. Once they threw her out, Rheault dragged her home, warning her against alcohol.
"He'd put an arm around me and bring me home," said Lee, who attended the worship service at the coffee shop last Sunday. "He was always a soft, safe place to land."
Robert Poole, a drinking buddy, said Rheault's nickname was Mumbles. He had no teeth, so although he'd speak a lot, it was hard to understand what he was saying. He had a "family" he spoke fondly of — children of a long-term, on-and-off girlfriend who died shortly before Rheault met Chevalier.
"Every time I saw him, he was drinking, sitting by himself and all bummed out," said Lori Patton, Poole's girlfriend. Lately, however, Rheault had been changing.
He'd give a hand to unload donations at the cafe. And Rheault directed donations of furniture, bedding and housewares to the people who he knew needed it the most. During worship services, he'd sit at a front table.
"What are you doing?" Lee asked him about a month ago. "I'm doing the same thing you are — Jesus," Rheault responded.
Two days after Rheault's death, Chevalier wrote about the inspiration he found in a scruffy, scowling street person. Some people didn't like Rheault, Chevalier wrote, but he was honest, trustworthy and reliable.
Five years ago, Chevalier wanted to meet a homeless person. In Rheault, Chevalier found a relationship that brought life to the Gospel teachings about feeding the hungry, finding the lost sheep and visiting those in jail, he said.
"I learned to love people through Ray Rheault that I would not have loved before," Chevalier said. "I learned to love the unloved."
Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.