The Hustler Priest: Questions for Father Joe

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The Hustler Priest: Questions for Father Joe

Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006 | On top of a filing cabinet in Father Joe Carroll’s office sits a bobble-head doll of himself. The doll wears the priest’s signature glasses, thinning gray hair and clerical collar. In his right hand, he’s clutching a wad of $100 bills. His left is outstretched, petitioning for a little bit more.

The dolls are a gimmick dreamed up by Carroll’s team to reward donors of at least $100 for his 5K run on Thanksgiving Day. But they epitomize the symbol he’s become for homeless services in San Diego after his 24 years in the business – his face and name decorate trucks and shelters and food programs. With national recognition for his “one-stop-shopping” shelter and rehabilitation programs, the priest continues to dream up plans for more housing projects and children’s programs.

A week before Thanksgiving, which marks the beginning of a seasonal charitable streak for many people, Carroll sat down with voiceofsandiego.org at the St. Vincent de Paul Village in Golden Hill to chat about the struggles to garner funding to sustain his programs, his friends in high places and his disdain for the way most people talk about “the homeless.”

How did you end up where you are right now?

It was an assignment by a bishop in 1982. He called me in his office and said, “Beginning tomorrow, you’re the new head of St. Vincent de Paul.” And I argued with him. … I was a young priest at the time, and supposedly he gives you an offer of assignments – you’d have the right to say “no” – and he said, “Not in San Diego.” And then I said, “I’d rather be in a parish,” and he offered me a parish … way out in the middle of the desert, 100 degrees. …

And I said, “This job (St. Vincent de Paul) doesn’t sound so bad after all.” Basically, he said he needed a priest who was a wheeler, dealer, hustler, and could find money and could hire social workers. And I find the money, and people run the programs. Half the time I don’t even know what goes on.

So, you’re a “wheeler, dealer, hustler” then?

Yeah, I think that’s my reputation, as a wheeler, dealer, hustler. ‘Cause I was not a social worker at the time. And I’m still not a social worker. I have people run all the programs. My job is doing the media, and trying to find money.

What do you think the state of homelessness in San Diego is right now, as far as attitudes about the programs that the city provides, the programs that agencies like St. Vincent de Paul provides?

What’s happened over time is that the enemy has become the agencies. It’s like we’ve caused all the problems. So it’s been tough to get things through City Council. Right now is probably the best City Council, CCDC – problem is there’s a shortage of money, all the agencies are short money – than we’ve ever had in my 24 years of working with the homeless in the city of San Diego. We believe that we could’ve proved, statistically, that in San Diego, we’re one of the few cities that’s seen a decline in the number of homeless.

Could have?

Well, we can, but no one really wants us to do it. They all have their statistics. But we can prove it by the number of service people, the number of people that we’ve put through our programs, and, you know, we can basically, statistically, prove the number has gone down, and anyone who’s been around long enough will realize it’s gone down. Because there’s not as many homeless spread around downtown as there used to be.

So, more are being housed in transitional shelters and that kind of thing?

Well, they’ve been housed, but also, they’ve been rehabilitated and moved into regular housing. So they’ve moved out, and they’re stabilized, and they’re living normal lives.

What attitude in San Diego would you most like to change, toward the homeless population?

Well, the not-in-my-backyard attitude. Nobody wants them in their neighborhood. We need to make sure people know, these are neighbors in need, and the agencies are the ones to best solve the problem.

You were talking … about the difference between homeless and neighbor.

Because that’s, in effect, what they are. When you say, “the homeless,” there’s this creation of unknown. Fear of the unknown. When you say, “neighbor,” it seems to take the bite out of it. And, in fact, that’s all they really are. They’re neighbors who end up homeless, neighbors who end up drug addicts, neighbors who didn’t get a good education. And when you do that, then people understand it, they’re willing to volunteer, they’re willing to be involved. It takes away the stranger image.

And, you know, also the Scriptures tell us a neighbor is anybody in need, even if they’re our worst enemies.

You’ve been involved in the ballpark negotiations, speaking of not-in-my-backyard. What role did you play in those?

Well, I did a lot of TV interviews advocating it. I wrote letters to senior citizens that we want to make sure we – you know, I’m a senior myself – that we leave a heritage of a hometown baseball team, that we don’t have the team leave, and kids growing up here without baseball games to go to. It’s a good economic thing. It provides jobs – not what you’d call full-time jobs – but jobs for people like our residents who could go there at night and work, but during the day go to rehab programs. And, you know, they wouldn’t have to worry about transportation, they could walk. … So, it has a lot of advantages, I just thought that should be something we keep in town.

How important are the relationships that you’ve built with the powers that be in San Diego?

Well, it’s important for us to have relationships with all of the powers that be because we tend to get into political fights over whether we have a right to exist. The powers that be give us access to funding, give us access to material goods that we might need. They may be redoing their office and they call us up and say, “do you want all our office furniture?” … So they give us a lot of donated items, which keep our costs in control.

And one of your friends that you supported with a letter was [former Congressman Randy] “Duke” Cunningham. And did you come under fire for that?

Oh, yes, I came under fire for that. Because people misunderstood. They thought I was saying he was innocent. Duke himself said he was guilty. What I was saying was, he’s a friend, and I don’t abandon my friends just because they get in trouble. Secondly, treat him fairly. Don’t punish him and say, “We’re going to punish all of Congress by punishing Duke Cunningham.” And I think the judge looked at it, was very fair, in his analysis of the punishment that Duke should get. And I was happy with it. Again, I’ve known Duke for 24 years. Sure, he messed up, he broke the law. But I don’t think I should abandon a friend. And, as a priest, I’m supposed to be teaching forgiveness and mercy. So, it fit me more to be in his corner as a friend, not in his corner saying, they’re picking on him.

And maybe it was returning a favor? Was he able to fund any of your projects [while he was in office]?

Yeah, but it was more the friend thing. He’s done things over the years for us. Nothing major. But the main thing I did for him was, he was a friend, and I just don’t think you walk away from a friend.

Earlier this summer you announced some cutbacks to some of the Father Joe’s Villages programs, because of dwindling funding, right? What were the sources of those cutbacks?

Well, car donation regulations changed. Our car donation program was down considerably, well over a million dollars lost, donations were flat because you had four disasters in a row. You had 9/11, tsunami, Katrina, and the fires in San Diego, so people gave to those. And they don’t give extra; they take it out of what they would normally give. And, basically, we had to close our shower facility, which enables anybody on the street to take a shower in the daytime. But the Fish Market restaurants stepped up and are paying for the cost of that all year long. … So that only had to close for one day.

And the other problem is, we have a residence for 350 single men and single women. It’s usually 24 hours and now it’s only at night. During the daytime, those 350 people now wander the streets. …

And, you know, you’ve got to live within your means, just like anybody else.

Have you ever considered pursuing a traditional parish post?

Oh, yeah. I have always wanted to have a traditional parish post, because I think it’s the best for a priest. Your children are always getting baptized, they’re always making First Communion, they’re always getting married, you hold a person’s hand when they die. At every critical moment of life, you’re with that person. So that’s what I’ve always loved about it.

But now I’ve got to love this job because every day, I meet someone who says, “I’m a graduate of St. Vinnie’s in ’98, ’92” – you get that sense of real accomplishment that we’re actually changing people’s lives.

The parish priest always gets criticized; his homily’s too long. …You accept it, but it’s minor – “You’re no good, you’re a bum.” I take real offense when they say the people we work with are bums. Then I really am not a nice guy. Then I’ll say things I shouldn’t say.

When will you throw in the towel?

When they open the grave and put me in it.

You’re going to keep going for awhile?

I’m going to keep going as long as I can. I really enjoy the work. … Oh, it’s challenging. There are days when I come home and I feel like chucking it all. And there are days when I come home and think, “Yes, we’re going to build the next building; yes, we’re going to build a camp.” So, you know, it depends on what kind of day I have. Just like everybody else.

– Interview conducted by KELLY BENNETT

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