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‘The numbers keep going up’: St. John's-based Gathering Place being stretched to the limit

Joanne Thompson, executive director of The Gathering Place, says new funding for the organization will support full-time staff for service provision, adding to the ability to help support individuals with complex needs.
Joanne Thompson, executive director of The Gathering Place. - Ashley Fitzpatrick

Higher numbers increase strain on funding, volunteers

Finding a way to make a difference is what the Gathering Place was founded on when it started in 1994.

People come to the centre in downtown St. John’s for a host of reasons — hunger, abuse, mental illness, physical disabilities and addiction.

For some of those people — many barely getting by — the Gathering Place is the only safe place they can go.

They are provided with a number of services, including a meal or a shower, medical care, socialization, or a place to just sit and rest and talk to another person. People are treated with dignity at the Gathering Place because it is built on the philosophy that everyone deserves compassion and it operates on the basis of anonymity.

“We used to see four or five new people on a daily basis and now we are seeing 20 new people per day.”

Joanne Thompson, executive director, the Gathering Place

Their mantra is “There is no ‘nobody’ here,” and they seek to help as many people as they can.

One of those services is providing hot meals — a process that is becoming more challenging on a daily basis.

“Right now, we are preparing lunch for 350 and our breakfast program is seeing more than 120 each day,” said Joanne Thompson, executive director of the Gathering Place.

“We used to see four or five new people on a daily basis and now we are seeing 20 new people per day. The numbers keep going up. They are more than double than what they were when I took on this role three years ago. These are significant increases. We are anticipating we will see hundreds of new people here this summer,” she added.

Thompson explained that’s a strain on two levels. The biggest is funding, as the Gathering Place only gets a small amount of its operating money from the government, and secondly on staff, most of whom are volunteers.

Originally established in 1994 by the Sisters of Mercy and the Presentation Sisters in response to the needs of those seeking food, the Gathering Place receives support from the community, including financial and in-kind donations from service organizations, church groups, foundations, corporations and individuals.

Thompson says there are more than 800 volunteers involved with the Gathering Place, 100 or more per day. She said having enough people to run all the programs is an ongoing struggle.

New programs and services have been added to address the ever-changing and growing needs of guests, including foot care, a clothing boutique and hair care service.

In addition, guests have access to housing experts, nurses and social workers who help address complex needs, in addition to advocacy, literacy and computer programs.

According to the Gathering Place website, there are over a thousand people in St. John’s living on the streets or in inhospitable boarding houses.

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