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Extreme cold produces extreme need in Newfoundland and Labrador

On Wednesday, The Telegram visited the Gathering Place and spoke to some people about the weather and the help they get at the Gathering Place. Posing outside the Gathering Place are (from left) Joseph Howell, Billy Murray, Robyn Byrne, Gerard Murphy and Robert Rideout.
On Wednesday, The Telegram visited the Gathering Place and spoke to some people about the weather and the help they get at the Gathering Place. Posing outside the Gathering Place are (from left) Joseph Howell, Billy Murray, Robyn Byrne, Gerard Murphy and Robert Rideout. - Joe Gibbons

When you’re vulnerable, fighting the cold isn’t as simple as turning up the thermostat or reaching for your pricey parka

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Close on lunchtime Wednesday, Water Street in St. John’s looked deserted — lots of cars parked along the street, but few pedestrians, except Dennis Faulkner, who was perched on a sidewalk, his hands tightly gripping a Tim’s coffee.

A ball cap on the ground held a few coins while he shivered, causing the creamy coffee to drip down on his coat.

“It don’t stop me,” he said of the -14 C temperature, which felt like -27.

Environment Canada issued an extreme cold warning for an extended period of wind chills near -30. The cold is predicted to improve Thursday, but remain to the end of the week.

Faulkner, who said he lives in a shelter, was dressed in sneakers and a basic coat, but vowed to stay out until he made enough money for a meal of Chinese food from Monroe takeout.

Several streets away, Robyn Byrne and Billy Murray, who have been together for 17 years, were escaping their cold apartment and trying to save on some electricity bills at the Gathering Place.

Robyn Byrne and Billy Murray.
Robyn Byrne and Billy Murray.

Byrne and Murray use the facility for addictions treatment, fellowship and counselling, but also for basic needs like meals, showers and laundry. They know what it’s like to spend a cold day like Wednesday out on the streets.

Byrne said that several years ago, she was sent to the Clarenville prison for women for a short stint after stealing milk, and they lost their housing. When she got out they stayed with friends, spent some time in a hotel through social assistance while they tried to find a place and spent some winter days in Victoria Park during times of frost warnings.

“We were homeless for six months,” said Byrne, adding that the days in the park contributed to a miscarriage.

They finally landed an apartment, and though not ideal housing, they know they can come six days a week to the Gathering Place, which provides services for people age 25 and older. Their three boys live with family, but visit them on weekends.

“We didn’t know where to turn until we found this place,” she said, with Murray adding he’d given up all hope of ever turning their lives around.

They said some of the most useful things strangers could offer anyone they come across living on the street are blankets and sleeping bags.

All the clothes on their back now and in their closet come from donations to the Gathering Place.

They said if anyone comes through the door without gloves or a hat, Sister Dorothy is off right away to find something.

As the sunlight spilling through the windows added to the warmth of the great room Wednesday, Sister Dorothy Baird explained to The Telegram the credo of not letting anyone go out without proper clothing, and then led the crowd in announcements and prayers before a lunch of hot goulash. The group, including Byrne and Murray, repeated the prayers with rapt attention on Sister Dorothy.

“We wouldn’t be able to get by without this place and not if you’re cold and hungry,” Murray said.

Staying warm

Julie Yetman, who moved to St. John’s from Toronto 3 1/2 years ago, said she comes to the Gathering Place for meals, dental services and clothing, and although she’s got heat included in her rent now, she also comes to the Gathering Place to get out of the cold. It’s only been two months since she got housing.

“I was outside last winter and even some time this winter,” Yetman said.

“And sleeping on couches and stuff.”

Joseph Howell, also of St. John’s, said while he’s got a place, it’s difficult to get around in the cold, especially when the sidewalks are icy. He’d like to see more people donate on a regular basis to shelters, and services such as the Gathering Place, and to remember that people need warm clothing in various sizes.

“Services like this keep people like us in the warmth,” Howell said.

Choices for Youth manager of programs Jill Doyle (right) and outreach program team lead Katie Hopkins sit by a pile of hats, scarves and mitts the non-profit group had ready for cold youth who attended daily drop-in services at the downtown St. John’s facility Wednesday, when Environment Canada issued an extreme-cold warning. They expected to be running low before the evening outreach hours were done.
Choices for Youth manager of programs Jill Doyle (right) and outreach program team lead Katie Hopkins sit by a pile of hats, scarves and mitts the non-profit group had ready for cold youth who attended daily drop-in services at the downtown St. John’s facility Wednesday, when Environment Canada issued an extreme-cold warning. They expected to be running low before the evening outreach hours were done.

Gerard Murphy would usually be at his busking spot of 10 years on Duckworth Street strumming his guitar and singing some Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Ron Hynes, but it was just too cold Wednesday, so he spent some time at the Gathering Place instead.

Holding up his hand to show the damage, Murphy said he’s gotten frostbite before from his fingers sticking to the the metal strings in the cold.

In the last five years, as more people have less cash in their pockets, he’s welcomed Tim’s cards, coffee, soup and gift bags that contain items useful for the cold, such as hand warmers.

“I use them on my feet inside my boots,” he said with a laugh.

Robert Rideout said he has supportive housing through the Stella Burry Foundation, but feels sad for those who aren’t as lucky as he is.

“We need more housing,” he said, emphasizing his gratitude for the services and staff at the Gathering Place.

Ivan Snow remembers sleeping in an abandoned car in Gander during his times of having no place to stay and, like Byrne and Rideout, said the province simply needs more shelters and housing options.

Snow said warming centres are desperately needed for people on a fixed income — as he is after trying to catch up on his power bill from Christmas — who just want to save on some heat at home.

Full facility

At the Wiseman Centre on Water Street West Wednesday, shelter capacity was tapped out, as it has been all winter.

But Capt. Steven Barrett explained the facility refers people to the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corp. to work to get them off the street, and in the meantime will offer people a place by the heater, a blanket and a hot meal.

“We always have food on hand,” he said.

Shelters in the city also co-operate with one another to find beds.

Barrett noted people naturally donate to services for the needy at Christmas, but the need is there all year round.

And one need that has never gone away and is only in a small way addressed by existing services: safe, affordable housing, especially housing that offers supportive services.

A warming centre is absolutely a service that metro could regularly use in the winter, not just during emergencies such as power outages, said Jill Doyle, manager of programs at the Choices for Youth outreach centre, which provides services to people age 16-29, as well as nine emergency shelter beds for male youth.

Even if people have heat included in rent, they don’t always have control over the thermostat, Doyle pointed out. If they don’t go to an outreach centre, or it’s during off hours — Choices for

Choices for Youth chef Lois Dinn was getting a hot supper ready for youth Wednesday at the downtown outreach centre. About 60 to 80 youth usually drop by Wednesday evenings for a sit-down or to-go meal, but shelter workers weren’t sure how many would be able to get out in the extreme cold.
Choices for Youth chef Lois Dinn was getting a hot supper ready for youth Wednesday at the downtown outreach centre. About 60 to 80 youth usually drop by Wednesday evenings for a sit-down or to-go meal, but shelter workers weren’t sure how many would be able to get out in the extreme cold.

Youth, for example, isn’t open on weekends — they have to rely on kind coffee shops that allow people to linger, or go hang out at the mall or other public places.

The shelter beds, as they are always, were full Wednesday and the downtown centre was busy getting ready to serve the weekly dinner - chicken cacciatore this week - to drop-in youth (other weekdays there is a hot lunch).

Staff also went through a storage bench of hats, gloves and mitts to make them ready for the people who need them, and Doyle expected the supply to be low by Wednesday evening.

Usually about 60 to 80 people drop in for the meal, but staff were unsure if the cold would keep some people away.

“For some people, getting here involves a lot of walking,” Doyle said.

Hats, mitts, scarves, socks, ground and instant coffee, tea bags, hot chocolate packets, bus passes, coffee shop cards and personal items are some of the most useful things people can donate to Choices for Youth, and like other organizations, help spikes at Christmas and drops off in January and February.

People interested in donating should call Choices for Youth’s main line first before dropping off items, as they, like some other non-profit groups, have storage constraints.


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