Nfld. & Labrador

Needle disposal boxes, better lighting coming to troubled St. John's neighbourhood

Changes are coming to a St. John’s neighbourhood known for sex work and a history of criminal activity.

Living in Community program aims to find solutions through collaboration

After six months, the Living in Community initiative in St. John's has showed signs of mending fences between residents of Tessier Place and community groups. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Changes are coming to a troubled St. John's neighbourhood known for sex work and a history of criminal activity, following months of meetings with a wide-ranging group that aims to bring together the concerns of residents, women's groups and city officials.

Happy City St. John's, on behalf of the Living in Community steering committee, has announced needle disposal boxes and improved lighting will be installed in the area in the coming months.

"There's some new lighting going in on the green space by Tessier Park because that was identified by residents and by workers as a place that really didn't feel safe," said committee member Hope Jamieson, Ward 2 councillor. "And so a simple thing, like adding a couple streetlights, will really change the way that neighbourhood feels."

Better lighting is coming to the Tessier Place neighbourhood, after being requested by residents and groups representing sex workers. (Gary Locke/CBC)

The changes are small steps, but ones that show an encouraging trend after years of conflict on how to handle the unwanted activity on the street.

"[Meetings] have been happening for six months, slow going, but we've developed some trust between each other that hasn't been there before," said Robyn Legrow, who represents area residents on the Living in Community committee.

Safety concerns raised

Many people in the neighbourhood, which includes Long's Hill and Livingstone Place, have raised concerns about the crime and drug use, and how that might affect their personal safety.

Meanwhile, advocates for sex workers worry about maintaining the safety of the women working on the streets. 
Robyn Legrow says residents of Tessier Place have been waiting a long time to see their concerns addressed by the city. (Paula Gale/CBC)

Legrow said some residents have installed white-noise machines in their living rooms to drown out sound from the street.

"You can imagine if you're being woken up nightly by women screaming in the streets, you're trying to take your child out for a walk and you see used needles on the ground, and you witness people with needles in their arms, this all takes a toll on a resident and you become almost fearful in your home," she said.

Jamieson said the meetings are a place for difficult conversations to occur and, hopefully, for common ground to be found between disparate parties.

"The idea around Living in Community is that no one group is advanced at the expense of the other, and I think that that's how we find long-term, lasting solutions to these issues."

Living in Community is modelled after a similar program in Vancouver.

Change doesn't happen overnight

For the past two months, Jamieson has been hosting an additional public meeting at the crypt in the Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist to gather feedback for Living in Community.

Some of the things discussed included changing the flow of traffic to prevent drivers from lingering in the area.

Jamieson said she can already see the changes that can happen when people work through their differences.

"I was speaking with one of the representatives, a local business owner who sits on the group, and he was saying as a person who had no background about the sex trade or about any of these issues coming in, he feels like he's learned so much, and he's seen a lot of shifts in the way people interact with one other in that short period of time," she said.

St. John's Ward 2 Coun. Hope Jamieson says she's pleased with the progress of a new committee dedicated to addressing sex work and drug use in city neighbourhoods. (CBC)

As for Legrow, she said one of the best ways for her group to further its goals is to learn the proper terminology and treat sex workers with respect.

"At the Living in Community table we actually had some stigma training, and we're planning some harm-reduction training, just so that we know the situation, we know why the women are there," she said. "We really want to hear their side of things."

"Part of our goal as residents is to try and figure out a way that we can make someone with lived experience comfortable enough to come talk to us and have a dialogue with us." 

Still, Legrow said finding solutions won't be easy.

"It's community building and trust building, and unfortunately that doesn't happen overnight."

With files from the St. John's Morning Show