Gathering Place marks 25 years changing lives for the most vulnerable

In St. John’s, the Gathering Place is so much more than just a place where people in need can go to get a bite to eat.

The centre provides socialization, a community and a welcome with open arms for society’s most vulnerable people.

“It was never intended to simply be a soup kitchen,” says executive director Joanne Thompson, as the Gathering Place marks its 25th year operating in St. John’s.

“Every person in society has a role to play here.”

To mark the milestone anniversary, the Gathering Place hosted its annual garden party on Wednesday afternoon.

Gathering Place visitors, as well as past and present volunteers, opened its doors for everyone to come and partake in the open social gathering in the sunshine.

This is the end of the line, and I don’t think anybody looks to be there.– Joanne Thompson

The centre services about 2,000 people, a “staggering number,” said Thompson.

“We believe that every individual has an opportunity and has a want to reach a higher point of being. I don’t think any child in school ever said, ‘I want to grow up and be at the Gathering Place.’ This is isolation, it’s often from a lifetime of trauma,” she said.

“And part of what we want to bring to the community in this awareness campaign is a humanizing face to the reality of people’s lives. The fact is, no single event brings someone to this place in their lives, and I don’t think there is anyone in society who is necessarily free from this happening to them.”

Not just about feeding people

The Gathering Place first opened when the sisters at the nearby convent noticed an increasing number of people were knocking on their doors asking for food, but Thompson said it wasn’t just hunger they sought to alleviate.

“The sisters realized that certainly food was part of a larger need, and it was as much about social and belonging as it was about food,” she said.

“To have a sandwich given to you in the middle of a rain storm is great, but the ability to sit in a place that’s warm and inviting is also important.”

Joanne Thompson is the executive director of the Gathering Place. (CBC)

For the most part, Thompson said the regular visitors to the Gathering Place come for a meal without knowing where they will rest their heads that night.

“It’s just a series of chronic illness, addiction, isolation. No one is separate from drug use, from illness, mental illness,” she said.

“I think an individual who’s had a series of events that really have crippled them, this is the end of the line, and I don’t think anybody looks to be there — or wants to be there.”

Over the last three years, Thompson said the Gathering Place has been recording data of the people who utilize its services.

Those numbers show 97 per cent of people using the Gathering Place are from Newfoundland and Labrador. There are other factors in common, as well.

“There is no doubt that over the past two years in particular, we’ve seen a significant increase in people caught in addictions. Drug use is a significant problem,” Thompson said.

“Chronic mental illness, which is the predominant presenting factor, is really difficult to tell because you see both. Marginalization, exclusion, inadequate housing, inadequate access to addiction services really contribute to that whole cycle of vulnerability.”

Thompson said the Gathering Place is hoping to raise awareness about the continued need to help the city’s vulnerable population and, in particular, shine a light on the cyclical nature of the systems in place that are meant to help them.

“We can together, and through collective will, start to make the needed changes in the systems.”

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