COVID-19 has taken its toll on St. John’s. Here is how The Gathering Place has been faring.

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The Gathering Place logo. From https://www.sistersofmercynf.org/update-the-gathering-place/

A brief drive or walk in downtown St. John’s will bring one’s attention to an increasing presence of people suffering without housing and those who are otherwise in need. The pandemic has increased homelessness across Canada as more and more people are left with no relief. This CBC article claims that not only are more and more people becoming homeless due to having lost their jobs with a lack of stimulus, people are simply unable to find homes due to the lack of affordable housing in most major urban centres.

Further, as we shift into winter, the pandemic is not the only pressure building atop service providers for vulnerable people. The colder months are always harder for organizations such as St. Johns’s The Gathering Place, which offers support through meals, short-term emergency sheltering, medical care for both physical and mental health needs, socialization and more for our city’s most at-risk and marginalized people. The harsh St. John’s weather leads to an increase in the severity of issues faced by numerous people here as issues such as homelessness are exacerbated by the cold.

The Gathering Place, located at 172 Military rd., St. John’s, defines themselves as “A Safe Refuge.” Under the “Who we are” section of their website, they write that “[t]his is the place where people come when they have nowhere else to go. Where they find a safe place to sit, eat, shower or talk. Without judgment, without fear”. What once started as a soup kitchen has grown into a community hub, serving over 2000 clients “on a weekly basis”.

I spoke with a representative of The Gathering Place, the Director of Partnerships and Development, Kieran O’Connell, about the changes facing the charity. The following are my questions and his responses.

Q: How does the shift to colder winter months affect the Gathering Place?

A: “There are many changes that come about with the change in weather, but overall the goal of our work stays the same. I think that the biggest change is the sense of urgency that comes with finding emergency shelter and long-term housing. When someone presents as experiencing homelessness, we will always do everything possible to support them, but some issues cannot be solved over the course of one day. When winter comes, not having a warm place to sleep can be extremely dangerous, so staff will likely be found working overtime trying to find a place for Guests to stay. Another big difference that we see in the winter is that Guests will typically spend more time here as it gets colder, so the number of people in the building will be higher on colder days.”

Q: I noticed on the website that more and more people are using the Gathering Place’s services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How have the staff dealt with the influx of people and the new COVID-19 regulations?

A: “Since the beginning of the pandemic we have had to learn to make changes rapidly, while ensuring that we are following all public health guidelines. One of the challenges we ran into early on was with our volunteers. During the first stages of the pandemic, we wanted to ensure everyone’s safety, so we asked our volunteers not to report for their shifts. That meant staff needed to pick up a lot of the work that is typically handled by our volunteers, while still ensuring that their other work was still being done. As the alert levels lifted, we were able to bring volunteers back which has made a world of difference in our ability to deliver services. Overall, COVID has meant a lot of small changes in every single interaction, whether with Guests, Volunteers, donors or other staff members. When we start to tally up those small changes, we can see that each and every staff interaction has become considerably more complicated. Staff have handled the changes extremely well, and coming off of January’s snowstorm, they were well prepared to go above and beyond in their work.”

Q: As University students, we are often not in the ideal place financially to donate money. While I believe the Gathering Place is currently not taking physical donations due to COVID-19, is there anywhere else people would be able to donate clothes/winter apparel/etc. if they wish to benefit our community?

A: “Without a doubt, financial donations are very important for us to be able to continue our work and improve service delivery, but there are several ways that community members can meaningfully contribute to the organization and those who access the services here. Volunteering is a great way to benefit the community, and we are always looking for folks who are interested in offering a helping hand. Volunteers are invaluable to our organization and to our community as a whole, so anyone who is interested should have a look at our website to find out more about the process of becoming a volunteer. We require volunteers to be 18 years of age or older, but I frequently receive requests from younger people who want to contribute to The Gathering Place. Most recently a young man put off a virtual benefit concert and donated the proceeds to us. We also recently had some youth making and selling jewellery with the proceeds of the sales going to TGP. On top of collecting financial donations, we hear from many groups who are running events to collect donations of toiletries and personal care items. We depend on these kinds of donations to keep our boutique stocked with supplies that are useful to the Guests. While we could not take in-kind donations at the onset of the pandemic, we are now able to accept these donations again.”

While this is an extremely tough time for everyone, if you are capable of donating to The Gathering Place, it might be something to consider. As stated by Kieran, things have become more complicated throughout the year but their staff remain diligent as they continue their vital work.

If you or someone you know may find yourself in a vulnerable position, know that there are resources within the greater St. John’s area which are available to you. Here is a link to the services provided by The Gathering Place and here is a list of local mental health emergency services.

I would like to thank Kieran from The Gathering Place for his time. As well, I would like to extend my gratitude to those at The Gathering Place who take care of us. You can follow this link to donate to their astounding efforts, but if a donation is not financially feasible, note that Kieran lists other ways to help out above, if you desire.

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