Father Joe Carroll, founder Father Joe's Villages, recipient of Citizen Before Services Self Honors
Related Story: Nat'l Honor Given To San Diego's Father Joe Carroll
ST. JOHN: You're listening to Midday Edition here on KPBS. I'm Alison St. John. San Diego is fortunate to have been home to our next guest. He has made an enormous contribution to our community by paying attention to our neighbors who are struggling and whose feet have fallen off the ladder of success. There is a mini-empire downtown all designed to help those who would otherwise may be on the streets or hungry or alone. Father Joe Carroll is an icon of San Diego, recently honored by the national medal of honor society and foundation. Only four Americans were given the citizens service before self honors medal. And we're honored to have you with us today, father Joe, thanks so much for being here.
FR. CARROLL: Thanks, Alison.
ST. JOHN: Now, you've accomplished so much with Father Joe's Village. When you first came to San Diego, did you ever foresee that this is --
FR. CARROLL: Oh, no. When they first gave me the assignment in 1982, I figured less than a year, I'd be out of the job. It wasn't what I thought a priest's job was. But the bishop said you're a hustler, a wheeler dealer, and I want you to find money. And I went around the country and didn't like anything that I saw. And decided we had to come up with some type of program where everything a homeless person needs should be on the same site so you don't have them walking all over town. And that's the concept I have of 1-stop shopping. If you come in the door, we should be able to help you with everything. At the time, I didn't really know what homeless neighbors needed. But little by little as I learned we kept expanding.
ST. JOHN: So were you sent to San Diego in the first place? You came from the Bronx, right?
FR. CARROLL: Well, I came out here because of the weather as a young man. But I was a perish priest in San Diego, and the bishop pulled me out because he wanted us to do something for the homeless. You need to raise money, get a wheeler dealer.
[ LAUGHTER ]
ST. JOHN: So you have managed to acquire a lot of real estate for the homeless.
>> Oh, yes.
ST. JOHN: How many city blocks do you think?
FR. CARROLL: Well, between everything in downtown, we have a 4.5 almost 5 city blocks.
ST. JOHN: Oh, my goodness. So now, have you seen the homeless population change a lot? You've been in the business for several decades.
FR. CARROLL: Well, it always reflects the economic situation. So you see more people that are strictly the fact they lost their job, they don't have the drug, the alcohol, the mental health problems. That's still there. But you see more people that it's just -- really on hard times. And if you didn't have a large savings, you lose everything, you end up on the street. So for them, it's really a place to just get reeducated to a new career, and get back out to society. So their rehab is faster. The ones with chronic problems takings us a longer time, up to two years as we say.
ST. JOHN: So do you worry that the economy doesn't seem to be generating as many well-paying jobs?
FR. CARROLL: Yeah, we used to be able to turn one of those around in five, six months, and a traditional homeless person, about a year and two months. Now it's taking a full two years because they just can't -- there aren't the jobs out there. There's not the housing out there. So until both of those can improve -- we get clogged up.
ST. JOHN: So has it become easier to get the resources to help them would you say?
FR. CARROLL: No, because the economy is so bad. People are afraid. People still have, but they're afraid -- once you saw your 401K go in half, you get frightened. What I got to do is help them to overcome that fear and realize there are still people who are worse off. Right now, we're cutting back about a year and a half steadily because of donations being down. So when we would -- we're still going to feed and shelter people, but we had a first-class program that really made rehabilitation possible.
ST. JOHN: So the program itself is --
FR. CARROLL: It's beginning to suffer. 600-plus employees before, now we're down to about 480. And that's strictly we can't just afford to have a full staff right now.
ST. JOHN: And how would you say has been the biggest contributors? The public sector? The city, the county? Or private contributions?
FR. CARROLL: 75% of our money comes from private, individual contributions. 25% comes from the federal government. We don't rely on city, county, or state at all.
ST. JOHN: Well, the city has made quite a lot of effort to deal with at least the winter shelter. And it has allocated a certain amount of funds too.
FR. CARROLL: Well, they have. And if it's providing a shelter. But you need the rest of the program.
ST. JOHN: Right.
FR. CARROLL: And that's why we don't go for city money that much because they need it for the shelter. And that's critical. People will seriously get ill or die from that. When you're on the street and it's 35, it's cold.
ST. JOHN: It's cold. I've been in your place where there's been people stretched out all over the floor!
FR. CARROLL: We try to squeeze everybody in when it gets cold and wet.
ST. JOHN: Right. Do you think the county has stepped up enough to provide services for the homeless?
FR. CARROLL: No. No, I don't think the county has done much at all. They say they did because they pay the welfare out. Well, that's not really the homes, that's the poor there is a difference between that and homeless people on the street. And of course with the county, they have been having financial problems, the budget is cut more and more. So now there's more of an excuse than there used to be, but the county should be doing much more.
ST. JOHN: Have you been able to use your hustling in a political sense at all?
FR. CARROLL: Well, that's how we survive! We have no right to exist, legally. So we need permission as a county, the city, in order to exist. So for example, I want to expand homeless beds and have not been able to get a permit in the city to do that since 1994. My last building of a shelter was 1994. Now we built housing since then. But we need to expand homeless facilities. Now, the city is doing with their world trade center. So that's the first expansion of really housing beds for homeless persons.
ST. JOHN: So what you've been raising money for a lot is the affordable housing.
FR. CARROLL: And to keep our programs. An average state for us is 3,500 people a day.
ST. JOHN: Wow.
FR. CARROLL: 1,000 people live with us. But thousands come for meal, medical care, mental care, job training, all the other services that we provide to just all neighbors that are in need. So an average stay for us is 3,500 people. I go to other programs they go we do 3,000 people a year! That's one day with us. So it's important that people realize, we may be big but we also have a big budget. We just need to keep the donations. And St. Vince is doing is that now because they're got the father Joe neighbor society to keep father Joe's legacy going by supporting the programs and keeping going.
ST. JOHN: Do you worry about the changing demographics, the fact that the wealth appears to be being sucked up to the top 1% and the increasing inequality in our society?
FR. CARROLL: Well, I think we got to take a serious look at it. My goal is to get that excessive wealth to give me millions of dollars, are then I'll say they're not so bad!
ST. JOHN: You're playing your part.
FR. CARROLL: But we have to realize, we have to get the middle class up. But I just have a concern, I just happened to be in Washington getting the medal, how do you describe poverty? In today's world. Somebody's got an apartment, two, three TVs, got a car, none of which my family had, and we didn't think we were poor. And that's considered poverty. Well, maybe we ought to take a better look at what is the real poor, which means persons on the street, people living -- we have eight kids in a 2-bedroom apartment. There are situations that are poor, some of the poverty I just question.
ST. JOHN: But at the same time, some people may be have a nice car parked outside, but there's not a lot of food sitting on the kitchen table.
>> Then you got to realize they're not making the right choice.
ST. JOHN: That's part of a lot of what you're teaching. It's almost like an education thing.
>> Well, my background and degree is in educate. And I need to educate the public that we're dealing with neighbors. I mean, I joke that a friend of mine gave me $100 for the poor, he gave $100,000 to the
FR. CARROLL: And I said wait a minute, I'm not selling the product right. These are people, these are neighbors. And then convince people we meet on the street, 40% are illiterate. Can't even read! So how can they do anything in this world? Everything is on computers, it's reading. So we are a tremendous educational program. Which again, it's going to be cut back a little bit because food and shelter you can't cut back.
ST. JOHN: But you're doing your part of trying to redistribute the wealth. Let's talk about your medal. And by the way, it is sitting on the desk between us, it is a wonderful thing! Describe it for us. Citizens service before self is your medal.
FR. CARROLL: Those who receive the congressional medal of honor, which makes them America's heroes, they decided a while ago there are wonderful people in the country doing things that are not recognized. So they give two to people who did something outstanding in this given year, such as a young boy who saved another boy from a fire, two guys who saved 100 people from the floods, and then one who's had a lifetime of service. I got the lifetime of service one, and it has three emblems on it, three persons that represent peace, victory, and valor which is on the unknown soldier's grave of the
ST. JOHN: Ah!
FR. CARROLL: So they want to tie in that heroes in America, doing our day to day -- everyday occurrence. Well, they did it in war. It's being done on the streets of America every day. And I got to admit, when I first went to Washington to get it, after one day spending with these guys and that they think I'm a hero, it was, like, you got to be kidding me. The guy before me was a double amputee, and here he's got his mechanical arm putting the medal on, and I'm saying what have I given up? And he's saying you're father Joe! You're a hero to me! And was an awakening that 30 years, we have done a lot of good things in San Diego.
ST. JOHN: Well, you haven't been doing it for yourself, have you? So it's kind of odd when you actually get a medal, and you realize, hey!
FR. CARROLL: Yeah, it's my job. Feeding people -- I do 4,000. Sounds like a lot, but to me, it's just a normal day. And the fact that these guys which are America's heroes looked around, and I was figuring who are you going to have represented? Some movie star? Some politician? No, it's their medal for heroes they see in the United States. And when you see them who are amputees and great heroes giving you medals, it's, like, oh, my God, this is big stuff!
ST. JOHN: Yeah, a national medal. Congratulations, I have to say!
FR. CARROLL: Oh, it was a great experience. And just listening to their stories -- people came down and say how many people you take care of every day? 300? Wow! It's just another day. We don't think any of it. But when someone takes a look and says you're doing great -- it is a beautiful medal.
ST. JOHN: I would imagine that perhaps the thing that makes you feel proudest may not be the medal. What is it that brings you the most satisfaction?
FR. CARROLL: No matter where I go in San Diego, early morning, late night, daytime, shopping, lawyers' offices, when I was in the hospital for surgery, I meet an exresident. Somebody who says thank you, father Joe, I graduated St. Vinny's in 1997, in 2005, and one was a nurse in UCSD, and she's getting the needle ready, and she says I'm a brought of St. Vincent's. But everywhere you go, I was at Costco the other day, and three people came over to hug me and thank me for what St. Vincent's did for them. I got to admit, this medal got me excited.
ST. JOHN: It got through.
FR. CARROLL: And a lot of family came down from New York to see me get it, which added to the bonus.
ST. JOHN: Supposing you were right back at the beginning again of this endeavor, but we were here now in today's world. What would you say is the thing that's most important? What would you really set your mind on doing? What does San Diego need now?
FR. CARROLL: Well, obviously -- family beds. We keep building beds for single men, single women. But the number of families on the street is increasing. It can take you 3-4 weeks on the wait list to get into St. Vincent. I'd like to build a new shelter for families, and probably a different structure than the original one where we put them all in one room. I feel like at the Embassy Suites, we have a separation for the parents and the kids or something that makes it a little more private. And I think as a city, if you go around the country, I think San Diego is ahead of everybody. We've done incredible things with the yards. You can't beat The Old Globe, and you can't beat the symphony. And I don't think you can beat the hospitals we have.
ST. JOHN: Do you get people coming from around the country to visit father Joe's villages?
FR. CARROLL: Every week. We even built guest houses on the top of the building so they can stay there and go down at night and learn what we do. They all do what most people do. We don't have a father Joe. I said neither did San Diego. And we still did it. All I did was put together and bring people together to make this thing happen. That's all it takes. You've got to have people in your city who care. Every city has it. And San Diego is recognized all over the country for great cooperation between the homeless agencies that work together better than most places. It's a unique city in many ways, and I just think we've worked together to make things happen.
ST. JOHN: One last question then, what's the next step for the villages? What is it that you're hoping to, you know, how are you hoping to expand?
FR. CARROLL: Well, No. 1, we got to expand the income. We got to be able to support the programs we got now. Then if I were to get a big donation, $30 million, I'd like to build a new family shelter downtown. And we have land to do it.
ST. JOHN: There is so much need for that.
FR. CARROLL: Oh, it is. And most people never think of it. Under St. Vincent DePaul, we have 200 children. Think about that.
ST. JOHN: It's a sad thought, right
FR. CARROLL: 200 children already.
ST. JOHN: That's worth contributing to, isn't it? Good. Well, thank you so much for coming in!
FR. CARROLL: Thank, Alison, good seeing you again.
ST. JOHN: Take care.