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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

St. Vincent de Paul builds local collaboration

By Kaye Hult

“Community Collaborates” was the heading to an email Jeff Conroy sent on Nov. 22 to announce the opening of a new warming center for the homeless in Post Falls. 

Jeff Conroy
Jeff Conroy

Jeff, who is executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Coeur d’Alene, referred readers to an article in the Coeur d’Alene Press announcing that Ground Force Manufacturing turned one warehouse into a shelter to be open every night through February.  

Although it already has a shelter in Post Falls, St. Vincent De Paul helped Dirne Community Health Center create the new shelter.

In an age of divisiveness, Jeff seeks to enhance collaboration and celebrate it when he sees it, because he knows that “family homelessness is brutal.”

At St. Vincent’s, he has made collaboration among social service agencies that aid the poor and under-served as easy as possible.

“As director of a nonprofit, I believe nonprofits need to help each other,” he said.  “Nonprofits working together provide more complete services to people needing help.  The value of a strong nonprofit community is a healthy community overall.  Collaboration is the most effective way to serve a community.”

He also alerted others to the need for donations for a Rathdrum soup kitchen, which is part of St. Vincent’s collaborative ministry.

St. Vincent de Paul North Idaho has served Coeur d’Alene for 65 years.  It opened its doors in 1946 as an outreach of St. Thomas Catholic Church, but set up as an autonomous organization.

With its mission to help the poor and homeless, it began a clothes closet for anyone in need, regardless of religion, race, personal background or gender.

Over time, the closet grew into a store that sold donated merchandise and used earnings to help the less fortunate. 

In 1988, St. Vincent’s expanded by opening a social service office to give away vouchers for food, rent, store merchandise, medical help and other emergencies encountered by their clientele.

St. Vincent’s now includes two thrift stores, emergency shelters in Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls, transitional housing and affordable housing. 

Before Jeff came on board, St. Vincent’s collaborated with other agencies to serve the lost and the least.  When he became director, he sought to discern overlapping services in the community and helped eliminate those overlaps and streamline the ability of each to carry out its mandate.

Through collaboration with other people and agencies, he said St. Vincent’s has become the largest nonprofit center for homeless assistance, social services, information and referrals, and empowerment for low-income people in North Idaho.

In 2009, the H.E.L.P Center (Helping Empower Local People) opened its doors as a one-stop shop, bringing many nonprofits under one roof in the former library at 201 E. Harrison.  The City of Coeur d’Alene helped St. Vincent’s purchase the building.  He said the center has become a model for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and for the state of Idaho.

In the building, 19 agencies administer 24 programs. 

• Homeless Prevention/Rapid Rehousing moves people out of shelters, off the street, and into decent housing, he said. 

• ICARE of St. Vincent’s, a parent information resource center, offers parenting classes to prevent child abuse and neglect.

• The Child and Adult Care Food Program, administered by St. Vincent’s, provides children in day care with nutritious food. 

• The Fashions for Your Future program helps those looking for work to look their best.

• St. Vincent’s runs the only men’s shelter in North Idaho.  It also provides a women’s shelter and a shelter for families.  In addition, the Mary House shelter offers a place for women with children to find refuge.

To stay in any of these emergency shelters, residents must receive counseling on handling money and training in life skills so they can live more independently.

• Art on the Edge engages youth through after-school classes, public art projects and festivals.  It offers an environment for youth to use art as a tool for problem-solving, goal-setting, community values and self esteem.

• Through the Legal Link clinic, local attorneys volunteer free legal consultations.

• Other agencies in the center are:  Project Safe Place, which works with children and youth at risk and runaway children, plus Social Security Disability, the Idaho Department of Labor and Commerce, Idaho Department of Veteran’s Services, the Dirne Community Health Clinic, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the Panhandle Health District, Community Partnerships and Family Promise.

People who need clothing, blankets, household goods, a motel or gas voucher, hygiene products, a bus ticket or a hot meal can come to the H.E.L.P. Center for assistance.  Other services include representative payees, rent and utility assistance, career counseling and resume building.

Jeff said the St. Vincent de Paul “campus” includes:  a warehouse, where donated items are sorted and stored before being distributed to the thrift stores; a Community Dining Hall that serves meals to hungry people five days a week, and housing in Coeur d’Alene, Post Falls, Clark Fork, Plummer and Tensed.

He said the Vincentians live by a rule not to spread faith with words but with works as they seek to live their motto is “to help others help themselves.” 

A member of St. Thomas Catholic Church, he takes that rule seriously.

“My work at St. Vincent’s is part of how I live out my faith.  I’m a religious person, but you’ll never know it.  I’m also apolitical on the job.  I believe charity needs to be done that way,” he said.

Jeff’s parents were involved in serving less fortunate people in the community.  Even now everyone in his family works with people.  Before he came to St. Vincent’s, he worked with the Boy Scouts for 16 years.

“I believe people need to be safe, warm and fed,” he said.  “I believe spirituality is important in recovery, but a person’s physical needs must be met first.

 “We seek to provide 1) supportive services, 2) safe and sanitary emergency shelter and 3) a continuum of care that helps end the cycle of homelessness in the Panhandle area.  We believe every human being should be treated in a loving, respectful manner,” he said.

“Spirituality is the fourth leg,” he said, pointing out that St. Vincent’s works ecumenically, involving area church members to work with people in transitional housing.  “Our Spirituality Committee members make home visits to clients and host a help line.”

In the last year, Jeff said, there has been a 160 percent increase in homelessness.  Since 2008, the number of people running out of resources has increased by 375 percent.

While some in the community think people come to the area because there are many readily available social services, he said, “80 percent of the homeless are from here, second and third generation in this community.  They are our friends and neighbors.

“The expenses and the needs are up, but the donations are the same as or less than last year, so we’ll need to find more avenues of collaboration,” he said.

For information, call (208) 664-3095 or visit www.stvincentdepaulcda.org.