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“Hustler Priest” for homeless, Fr. Joe Carroll, dies at 80

Priest serving homeless

Father Joe's Villages

John Burger - published on 07/16/21 - updated on 07/16/21

New York born, he moved to San Diego and spent his life building homes for those without.

Fr. Joe Carroll saw opportunities everywhere to help the homeless. Even when he was stopped for a speeding ticket, he managed to get a donation from the police officer who pulled him over.

That was Fr. Joe. He got such a reputation for hitting people up for money that he came to be known as “the hustler priest.” 

One winter, addressing a crowd of potential supporters, he commented wryly, “You know it’s cold out when Fr. Joe has his hands in his own pockets.” 

Joseph Anthony Carroll, who as a young man left the cold Northeast and began a lifetime of helping the poor in southern California, died in San Diego July 11 at the age of 80. He had raised tens of millions for the homeless over the course of four decades, building an assistance network for the poor that came to be called Father Joe’s Villages. Still expanding, Father Joe’s Villages provides housing, food, health care, education, vocational training, rental assistance, and other services to thousands of people annually, according to the San Diego Tribune

The ministry grew out of a charity handing out peanut butter sandwiches to people on the streets in the 1980s. 

A hustler from an early age

Evidence of Fr. Carroll’s “hustling” qualities could be found in his childhood in the Bronx borough of New York City, where he was born on April 12, 1941. The son of Irish immigrants, he got his first job at age 8 — in a neighborhood butcher shop. Later, he sold Christmas trees and fixed laundry machines, according to the Tribune.

Answering a call to the priesthood, he enrolled in St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California. But his attempts to sell more than just books in the seminary bookstore — television sets, shoes and other merchandise — led administrators to believe he was overly interested in material gain. They expelled him. 

But he continued his studies later and was finally ordained for the Diocese of San Diego on June 28, 1974. After several years of parish work, he became director of the St. Vincent de Paul Center.

According to an obituary on the website of Father Joe’s Villages, in 1982, when Bishop Leo Maher needed a new director for the St. Vincent de Paul Center, he asked his clergy personnel board, “Who is the biggest hustler in the diocese?” Each member of the committee had the same answer: Fr. Joe.

“He can squeeze money out of a rock,” said Msgr. Dennis Mikulanis, a longtime friend who was on the committee.

The center would grow into Father Joe’s Villages, which has a four-block campus in San Diego’s East Village section. Together with programs across San Diego county, the operation houses about 2,000 homeless persons nightly.

Begin by listening

Father Joe’s Villages said the priest’s approach began by simply listening. 

“He began to hear directly from people experiencing homelessness what they needed to move off the streets,” the obituary said. “What he heard was that men, women and children were facing countless issues just trying to survive and struggled to focus on obtaining housing and income — and they needed comprehensive services to truly achieve success.”

In 1987, Father Joe’s Villages opened a $12 million facility known as the Joan Kroc Center, named for the McDonald’s heiress. The facility included housing for families and single adults, a medical clinic, childcare, meals, and job training. It was followed by the Bishop Maher Center in 1989 and the Paul Mirabile Center in 1994.

Father Joe’s Villages also created innovative programs such as a Therapeutic Childcare Center, Employment and Education Services, the Village Health Center, and a Transitional Housing Program for Families. Fr. Carroll also led the creation of three other locations: Toussaint Academy in San Diego, M.A.S.H. Village in Las Vegas, and Martha’s Village & Kitchen in Indio.  The latter two are now both separate entities from Father Joe’s Villages.

Fr. Carroll led Father Joe’s Villages until April 12, 2011, when he turned 70.

In addition to his work with the homeless, Fr. Carroll supported the Boy Scouts of America, serving as their diocesan chaplain from March 1975 through July 2014, and the Knights of Columbus, serving as chaplain for the California State Council in the early 1990s.

According to the Southern Cross, official news site of the Diocese of San Diego, Fr. Carroll once said his greatest accomplishment was helping others to see that the homeless are just “neighbors who need our help.”

“Father Joe Carroll was a priest who made Christ’s message of compassion and mercy real in a world where we so often look the other way rather than embrace those who are suffering in our midst,” said San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy. “Given the task of rejuvenating our Diocesan outreach to the homeless four decades ago, he completely recreated that outreach and gave to San Diego an incredible network of programs for those without shelter that radiate a profound and unrelenting humanity and hope.

“The housing network of Father Joe’s Villages is a testimony to his life work. But an even deeper testimony lies in the fact that Father Joe taught so many of us in San Diego to see the homeless as truly our neighbors, equal in dignity and children of the one God who is Father of us all. In this deeply pastoral ministry, Father Joe Carroll stands distinguished in our county and in our nation.”

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