With the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store’s sales down 50 percent since the Goodwill superstore opened, its board is scrambling to keep the store — and the many social services it supports — afloat.
Since just after Christmas, they’ve laid off five people and haven’t replaced three others who quit. Most were part-timers.
St. Vincent board member Dave Lutgens actually predicted the halving in sales, because that’s what happens when something new hits town — people flock to it, he said. But sales haven’t crept back up much, and the long stretch of bad weather hasn’t helped.
In a further complication, a long-term renter in St. Vincent de Paul’s downtown building, Johnny’s Automotive, is about to close its doors and end its lease in March.
The combination of events has St. Vincent against the ropes, and Lutgens and board member Mike Kilkenny say the charity’s situation is “dire.”
However, both hope things turn around, and neither wants to predict how much longer the doors can stay open at current income rates.
“God has always provided for us. We’ve had tough times before,” Lutgens said.
The critical issue, both men say, is if the doors close, all the services the thrift store supports financially will cease.
To prevent that, the thrift store is trying to make itself more appealing. It has reopened its changing rooms, and extended its hours. It was open Monday through Saturday until 5 p.m. Now it’s open until 6 p.m. And from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., items are half off.
They said many people don’t realize the thrift store, at 505 W. 9th Street, supports over half a dozen services to the needy, which are managed through the St. Vincent de Paul office downtown at 315 W. 3rd St.
“If we aren’t there, there’s going to be a real gaping hole,” Lutgens said.
In 2013, St. Vincent’s served thousands of people in the gorge, feeding the hungry by providing a daily meal through Bread and Blessings and Community Meals, and over 3,000 boxes of food.
It also helped needy individuals and families by paying $9,026 in utilities, $645 in gasoline, $3,054 in Greyhound bus tickets, and $474 for prescriptions. It provided 119 nights of emergency housing, gave away school supplies to students and provided Christmas gifts. It even gave away 47 blankets.
It also houses — but does not staff — the Warming Place, a cold-weather shelter that is seeing more use than ever. It also offers a laundry and shower service for those in need.
“If we go down, Bread and Blessings goes away, Community Meals goes away, Warming Place goes away, food baskets go away,” Lutgens said.
Community Meals board member Dixie Parker said Community Meals previously operated elsewhere, and could conceivable do so again. “I think we would attempt, anyway, to continue, but it would be at a great hardship.”
It would have to sell – or find space to keep – its appliances and tables, chairs and plates. It would put a bigger burden on the entities that host the meal each day.
“The needs have not gotten any less in the last few years,” Lutgens said. “They’ve actually gotten worse,” Kilkenny added.
“We want people to be aware what could be lost,” Lutgens said. “We need your support. We need financial support, one way or another. They can support by shopping at the store, by donating. We are a 501 ( c ) 3 [non-profit].”
Another non-profit thrift store at the other end of town, Salvation Army, has not had any ill effects from Goodwill. Business Manager Kris Harmon said sales have stayed steady, donations are up, and, with a much smaller staff than at St. Vincent’s, they have not had to lay anybody off.
She credits the mailers that St. Vincent’s and Salvation Army jointly did before Goodwill opened, which touted the local services the two existing thrift stores provided.
One consequence, though, Harmon said, is people are confused and think all three thrift stores are the same Goodwill company.
“We still get asked to this day, over and over, ‘How do you like your new building on the other side of town?”
Providing food to the needy is “the calling card of St. Vincent De Paul,” Lutgens said. In addition to the many food baskets it distributes, Bread and Blessings, run by Teresa Yragui-Zeman, offers a morning meal Monday through Thursday, and Community Meals serves an evening meal Friday through Sunday.
“So there’s a meal every day of the week, and they can take food to go,” Lutgens said.
By the end of the month, more people start showing up, “because their money runs out,” he said.
The St. Vincent de Paul ministry office downtown is a place for people to “socialize, get a cup of coffee, get out of the cold,” Kilkenny said.
Kilkenny is overseeing paying the bills. “We’re pretty much running from delinquency to delinquency,” he said. The stress of it all keeps him up at night. “We struggle every two weeks to do payroll, much less pay bills.
“You wouldn’t believe what our garbage [bill] is,” he said, because people dump “dirty, stinky” mattresses outside their door, along with other obviously unusable stuff, and they have no choice but to pay to haul it away.
The stream of donations to St. Vincent’s has not dropped off, but they have seen fewer big-ticket items, Kilkenny said. Lutgens said St. Vincent’s can pick up donations if people are unable to deliver them. To arrange pick-up, call 541-298-7837.
St. Vincent’s does get some federal FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Administration) to help with emergency shelters, but it is minimal. “We blow through that in a heartbeat,” Kilkenny said.
The HOPE walk-run is also a revenue source, as are cash donations to the charity. As a Catholic charity, it does get a donation from the local St. Peter Catholic Church, in the form of a donation box after mass six times a year.
But the bulk of funding comes from the store, Lutgens said.