Looking into Mike Ince’s eyes while he tells you about his life, you have no trouble seeing into his struggle.
The tough childhood, living on the cold streets of Toronto, incarceration, and addictions to drugs and alcohol.
The deaths of his siblings.
The strain is there in a fixed gaze, and he tries to hold back the emotion.
He says when the daytime comes to an end he lies on his mattress in his apartment in St. John’s, and the depression sets in as deep and dark as the night around him.
It’s a hole he likely wouldn’t climb out of come morning if it weren’t for The Gathering Place.
“When the loneliness and depression hits me, I feel like I’m in a boxing ring by myself. I struggle with that. A lot of times I just drink,” Ince says. “I feel like I’m strapped into my bed by the depression, like I’m sunk down into it. And I say to myself, ‘Mike, get up, have a wash and go to The Gathering Place, you’ll feel better.’ And every single time I do that, I do feel better about myself. The staff acknowledges me and makes me feel like somebody. The Gathering Place makes me feel better about myself.”
The Gathering Place is a service centre committed to building community, promoting equality and providing nourishment. More than 400 people a day come through the centre’s doors for breakfast and lunch, to avail of the centre’s services and to socialize.
“The Gathering Place is a godsend. The people here don’t look down on you, they treat you like anyone else." — Mike Ince
The programs and services of The Gathering Place are offered primarily to people who are homeless or live in less than desirable or housing conditions, and people who are often unemployed and who do not have adequate social supports in their lives.
Joanne Thompson, executive director of The Gathering Place, said the need is becoming greater. The centre’s 19 full-time and part-time regular staff, and hundreds of volunteers, are extremely busy.
“We do two meals a day, and we know we need to do three, and we need to be seven days a week (instead being closed on Sundays). We are hoping to move to seven days,” Thompson said.
“We know we need to do an evening meal and we want to move that way. To assume people can cook for themselves and self-care is unrealistic for most people here.”
The website estimates there are more than 1,000 people in St. John’s living on the streets or in hostile boarding houses. They’re struggling with any number of demons – hunger, abuse, mental illness, physical disabilities and addiction. For many of them, The Gathering Place is their only safe place to go.
Some come for a meal or a shower. Others come for medical care, dental care, to do laundry, a haircut, read, listen to music, or a place to sit and rest and feel a sense of belonging.
Thompson said guests are respected and treated with dignity.
She said there is a need for a continuum of services for their guests beyond what The Gathering Place can offer. The Gathering Place is constantly trying to find shelter beds and other supports for their guests who need them, she added.
“We have a whole range of primary health supports, the necessities of life, and that whole concept of social inclusion. So, if you are someone not connected with family, this gives you a connection,” Thompson said.
“If you are drug using, or have drinking challenges, as long as you can manage when you are here, so people can feel safe, we are here to provide the support and the services. The goal is to try to help someone find the highest form of being. If you can transition from where you are to more independence and more control of your life and circumstances, that’s clearly what we want to help somebody do.”
At 58 years of age, and after spending 18 years of his adult life in various prisons around the country, Ince is still struggling to find his balance in life.
He’s originally from Toronto and made his way to Newfoundland and Labrador a number of years ago.
Sitting at a table at The Gathering Place, he is neatly dressed in a blue shirt and dark blue tie, with a light blue scarf falling around his neck. His thick, black hair is pushed back by a wide headband, and there’s a small ring in his left nostril.
Articulate and mannerly, you’d never guess the unfortunate story behind the cover.
“Every bit of clothing I have on, except for this ring — a replica ring (Toronto Maple Leafs 1932) — is from The Gathering Place,” Ince said. “The Gathering Place is a godsend. The people here don’t look down on you, they treat you like anyone else.
“I have issues. First it was drugs. It’s not drugs anymore, even though I have a marijuana headband on, but I wear it because I think it looks cool. I never do pills because that’s how my sister passed away, an overdose of pills.
“Now it’s the alcohol. I went to an AA meeting the other night just to ask them how they do it, how they avoid alcohol because there were people there who were six, eight and 10 years without a drop of alcohol. I need to find a way. I have friends who are wealthy and if I ask them for $2 they won’t give it to me because they know where it will go.”
“We have a whole range of primary health supports, the necessities of life, and that whole concept of social inclusion. So, if you are someone not connected with family, this gives you a connection." — Joanne Thompson, executive director of The Gathering Place
Ince said a counsellor is working to try to get him into an addiction treatment centre in Ontario.
Although Ince doesn’t know much about his family’s history, he does know he is part Mohawk. Gathering Place case manager Kyle Langille is helping Ince navigate the process of applying to the federal government for Indian status. He said they are currently seeking death certificates of some of his family members.
“Sometimes I wake up and say, ‘God, why did you give me another day’” Ince said. “I’ve outlived my family. My sister committed suicide, my brother overdosed on heroin. My father was shot, murdered, and my mother I haven’t seen since 1985.
“I don’t know how I would do it without The Gathering Place. I can’t say enough about it. I am so thankful there are workers and volunteers here who you can go to talk to about different issues in your life. It’s an emotional rescue.”