By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin

Published: January 19. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – A few minutes after the doors to the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s food bank in Prineville opened at 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon, its long, narrow waiting room was full.

Two-year-old Koda Lostroh’s voice stood out among the mostly silent clients. An alert boy, with rich-brown eyes, Koda read a Winnie the Pooh book with his father while they waited to be called.

“Rabbit! A donkey,” Koda said pointing at the pictures, to his father’s encouraging replies of “Good!”

The Lostrohs were just one of about 50 families that walked through the door of Crook County’s St. Vincent de Paul on Thursday. The food bank and emergency aid service center has seen such an increase in clientele in the last year that it recently doubled its hours, from two days a week to four.

Larry Lostroh, Koda’s father, said he has used the St. Vincent de Paul food bank several times in the past, “just when we need to.” His wife works and he is looking for a job, he said. They have two other children, a 10-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter.

“I like it here – without it I’d have to go to Redmond or something and I don’t want to go out of town,” Lostroh said. “Everything goes up in the cold (weather) and then your electricity bill goes up.”

St. Vincent de Paul is the main food bank for Crook County, although some other organizations have smaller food pantries or soup kitchens. In addition to food boxes, the society provides rental and utility assistance for needy families.

Marcella Edmonds, the president of the society in Prineville, said St. Vincent de Paul served about 9,500 people in 2005. In 2006 that number was up to 11,000, and right now it is helping about 300 people a week.

“Our volunteers were overwhelmed with over 180 people coming through in a three-hour slot, so we’ve chosen to spread it out over the week,” Edmonds said.

Edmonds said many people in Crook County assume the area does not have much homelessness.

“I’ve heard from our population that we don’t have cardboard cities under the bridge, so we don’t have a homeless problem. That’s wrong,” she said.

Edmonds said she counted 78 families out of the clients St. Vincent de Paul has seen since November who are living in unstable conditions. That could include living with friends or family, or living in an RV or car.

Susan Maxwell, the lead interviewer at Prineville’s St. Vincent de Paul, said that many of the agency’s clients fall under the “working poor” category, people who have full-time jobs but still can’t make ends meet. At this time of year, she also sees many seasonal laborers who are currently out of work come in for assistance.

The rise in clients at St. Vincent de Paul may be related to rising cost of living and housing prices in Prineville, Edmonds said. The median cost of a house in Crook County went up 29 percent between 2005 and 2006, according to numbers from the Multiple Listing Service of Central Oregon. While rental numbers are less readily available, the cost of apartments rose only slightly between 2005 and 2006, according to the Central Oregon Rental Owners Association.

Edmonds said her agency is seeing about three to five requests per day for rental assistance. In order to qualify for that assistance, a family must already have an eviction notice.

Although funds are limited, the agency can give out about $50 per family for rent and utility bills. Volunteers first interview the client to determine need, make referrals to other agencies and conduct a home visit.

The Prineville branch of NeighborImpact, formerly known as COCAAN, also has limited amounts to give for housing assistance. Although there is no emergency shelter in Crook County, both agencies can provide vouchers for a one- or two-night motel stay. The Prineville Police Department also distributes money from The Salvation Army, which supplies $500 a month.

Police Chief Eric Bush said the department has not seen a big increase in people needing assistance beyond the rate of growth of the community.

“I think we’ve got a population of people who struggle to make ends meet and just barely make it from month to month, but we don’t see a lot of people who straight up have no home to go to,” Bush said.

Edmonds said that all the agencies work collaboratively to assist people in need of food, shelter and clothing.

“Say the bill is $400 behind, well that’s too much for any small agency to cover, so we divvy it up,” Edmonds said. “We want people to come in before they get to that point where the power is shut off. The same with eviction, once you break that relationship with your landlord, it’s hard to repair.”

January is usually the worst month for the agency, Edmonds said, because people are low on funds after the holidays and heating bills usually increase.

“We try to establish true need, versus turn of the year and somebody’s just asking for a handout,” she said. “Of course, the reality of it is most of the time it is true need.”

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