If you want to support some of the biggest charities in Billings, here’s a simple way to do so: shop at their thrift stores.
That suggestion, bordering on a plea, was delivered by Vicki Massie, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Billings. The organization moved its charity office from Montana Avenue into a remodeled warehouse at 3005 First Ave. S. last summer.
Two weeks ago, after having been closed since Christmas, the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store opened in the new building, too. There will be a grand opening for the new store on Feb. 5, followed by a two-week “blow-out” sale at the former location, starting Feb. 19.
The thrift store, Massie said, “is our most important source of income, after donations,” as are the thrift stores run by other charitable nonprofits in Billings — the Montana Rescue Mission and Family Service Inc. All of them, Massie said, are being hurt by Facebook, on which there are several local pages that make it easy for people to sell used goods, especially furniture.
That hurts the thrift store two ways, Massie said, by reducing the number of people shopping at the store and by chipping away at donations from people now more inclined to sell their furniture than donate it to a charity. Furniture is the biggest seller at all the thrift stores, she said.
It is also important for a place like St. Vincent to have that used furniture on hand in the store, Massie said. When individuals or families come in needing furniture, clothing, housewares and other goods, they are given vouchers to shop in the thrift store. In fiscal year 2016-2017, St. Vincent gave certificates to 1,003 households, which were used to buy furniture, clothing and household goods valued at $52,337.
The income from the store is important because most donations to St. Vincent stipulate that they be used for specific programs, not for continuing operational costs like rent, utilities and payroll. Income from the thrift store historically has paid those bills.
The move into the Crane Building on First Avenue South was good news for St. Vincent’s charity offices, which now have twice as much room as at the old location. But the thrift store is only about a third the size of the old one.
The old thrift store had 11,250 square feet on each of three levels, though the top floor was used only for storage. The new building has 7,820 square feet on the first and second floors and 7,400 square feet in the basement. The thrift store is on the second floor, which also houses a couple of offices and some staff space.
The store’s main room has clothing, jewelry, books and knick-knacks. Furniture, toys, crafts and linens are in a room behind the main one, and tucked behind the book nook is Vinnie’s Kitchen, a small room containing dishes and other kitchenware.
Massie said they hope to offer “the best of the best” in the new, smaller thrift store, which will also have lots of turnover. The store has the same hours as the old one: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9-4 on Saturday and closed on Sunday. The new building also has a 70-car parking lot.
The charity offices on Montana were moved first, after the three-story building adjoining the thrift store was sold last summer.
Massie said a buyer has made an offer on the thrift store building on Montana Avenue, a sale that would include the St. Vincent parking lot across the railroad tracks at the corner of Minnesota Avenue and South 27th Street. She said the buyers have plans for commercial use of the building, but not residential.
“I’m not sure what they’re going to do with the building, or whether they need the whole thing,” Massie said.
Massie credited Mick Wolff, the interim director during the move of the charity office, with pulling off a quick move — the office was closed for just three days — that was done entirely with employees and volunteers using trucks and vans owned by St. Vincent.
The former director, Ed Zabrocki, resigned in January 2017, and Massie, previously the volunteer coordinator and IT manager, was named to succeed him last August.
In the new, expanded charity office, there are two public restrooms, as opposed to just one at the old office, as well as a double set of washers and dryers. There is also a much larger common area where transients and other people in need of help can hang out, drink coffee, eat snacks and clean up.
St. Vincent de Paul provides a wide variety of services. Last year, it paid $59,598 directly to landlords to help 213 families with rent, paid utilities totaling $17,993 for 145 households, and distributed 23,135 sack lunches and 44,287 pounds of bread.
Its employees also managed accounts for 170 individuals. Massie said that entails taking in each person’s Social Security and other payments and then making that person’s rent payments and other bills. They also work out budgets and allowances for their clients.
“These are a lot of people whose accounts we handle that other organizations won’t,” Massie said, just as many of its programs “help the worst of the worst — that is our mission.”
“Our main goal right now is to prevent people from getting evicted,” she added, believing the best way to prevent homelessness is to help people who have places to live but are struggling to get by. If someone comes in with an eviction notice, St. Vincent, which has a staff of 17, will work with the landlord and make payments that allow families to stay housed.
Last year, St. Vincent also gave out cribs and other essential goods worth $1,190 as part of its Baby Basics Program, spent $5,914 to get people enrolled in Adult Education classes and helped 385 people sign up with Job Service representatives.
Massie is particularly proud of St. Vincent’s scrap-metal recycling program. Last year, volunteers disassembled appliances and other goods on their way to the landfill and salvaged 110,481 pounds of scrap metal. Volunteers logged a total of 24,354 hours at St. Vincent last year, and 1,774 people were seen at a RiverStone Health clinic inside the charity office.
Massie said she sometimes hears from people who criticize St. Vincent for “enabling” people by meeting their basic needs. After hearing one such comment recently, she talked to a longtime board member about it.
Massie said he told her that yes, St. Vincent does enable people — it enables them to stay in their homes, enables them to keep their utilities turned on, enables them to find a ride to work or enables them to obtain education that might lead to a new life.
“We do enable people,” Massie said, “but not in the manner we’re being criticized for.”
She is also proud of another statistic from St. Vincent’s 2016-17 impact statement: the organization spent $146,974 locally.
“That stays here locally,” she said. “It stays in this city.”