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Gazette opinion: St. Vincent de Paul helps prevent homelessness in Billings
GAZETTE OPINION

Gazette opinion: St. Vincent de Paul helps prevent homelessness in Billings

Weekdays at St. Vincent de Paul Society start at 8:30 a.m. with hot breakfast served to dozens of men and women who are homeless and hungry in Billings.

St. Vincent de Paul doesn’t have a commercial kitchen, but is serving hundreds of meals each week. The charity office at 3005 First Ave. S. offers hot, protein-packed soup, such as chili at 1 p.m., dishing up 25 gallons a week. The soup is prepared by volunteers at St. Thomas Catholic Church. Bread and other baked goods are donated by local businesses.

The breakfast food is prepared at Billings Food Bank. The Food Bank and Family Service also provide sack lunches that St. Vincent de Paul distributes with soup. Some people save the sack of food for their evening meal, said Craig Barthel, St. Vincent executive director.

“We serve the poor living paycheck to paycheck and those homeless on the street,” said Cameron Cook, the society’s development director.

Last year, the organization:

  • Worked with landlords and renters to get 198 eviction notices canceled, paying up to $350 in delinquent rent.
  • Helped 144 people in addiction recovery get into sober housing by paying up to $400 for their first month’s rent deposit.
  • Served as Social Security representative payee for 198 people who were unable to manage their money themselves. The staff and volunteers in the representative payee program see that the individual’s rent, utilities and grocery bills are paid so they didn't wind up on the street.
  • Provided exam rooms for the Healthcare for the Homeless program of RiverStone Health. A physician assistant or nurse practitioner and a case manager see primary care patients multiple days per week.
  • Provided space for Montana Job Service staff to meet weekly with job seekers.
  • Provided free clothing and household items to 700 households through its thrift store. Nearly half of the store items distributed last year were given away. The other half was sold at the store for cash to support the charity programs.
  • Provided laundry facilities for 2,100 loads of laundry at no charge. 

Named for the patron saint of charity, St. Vincent de Paul Society offices are located throughout the country, but only two are in Montana — in Billings and Great Falls. All the money for services provided in Billings is raised locally.

On cold mornings, the doors open before 8:30 a.m. so people don’t have to wait outside, Barthel said. Guests may stay until noon when the charity office closes for an hour. The lunch guests are welcome to stay till closing at 4:30 p.m.

St. Vincent de Paul emphasizes person to person acts of charity, Barthel explained. That's why staff and volunteers make visits to people seeking assistance. They listen and try to help the individual determine what help will do the most good.

Since Barthel became the executive director in May, there has been an uptick in breakfast and lunch guests. The sack lunch supply runs out earlier than it used to and more individuals are requesting rent assistance. As a result, the charity has exceeded its budget every month of this summer and fall.

“The board made a decision that Mark (Charity Office manager Mark Smith) should not turn anyone away for rent or utilities or sober living,” Bartel said. It costs an average of $260 per household for St. Vincent de Paul to prevent people from becoming homeless.

Barthel refers to the folks who come in for meals and other help as “our friends.” “They feel welcome; they feel safe. They can stay warm. We treat everybody with dignity and respect. These are our sisters and brothers.”

People aren’t turned away because they are intoxicated or high, Barthel said. These friends are expected to be respectful and generally they are. St. Vincent de Paul is pet friendly, Barthel remarked as a small dog leashed to its person trotted in the lunch line.

Nick Lewison, a longtime St. Vincent de Paul staff member summed up the mission: “Every time we serve one of those people, we serve Christ. We see the face of Christ in them.”

To fulfill that mission in a period of increasing requests for help, St. Vincent de Paul needs donations of time, money and gently used items. Please check the box below for information on how to help.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.

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