Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors to Help the Homeless

How the Catholic community is working to assist those in need, offering housing to those living on the streets.

Father Joe’s Villages in California is actively addressing the homeless crisis. Deacon Jim Vargas serves as president and CEO.
Father Joe’s Villages in California is actively addressing the homeless crisis. Deacon Jim Vargas serves as president and CEO. (photo: Courtesy of Deacon Jim Vargas)

SAN DIEGO — “The face of homelessness has changed over time,” says Deacon Jim Vargas, recently named president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages in California, a pioneering Catholic organization seeking to address the homeless crisis. 

“It used to be a very male face, an older face — but the profile has changed. Now there are women, single women, kids. It’s a lot different.”

In fact, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, nearly 30% of Americans experiencing homelessness in 2020 were in families (as opposed to individuals who are without shelter). Nearly 6% were unaccompanied youth. 

And that means the face of homeless services is changing, too — and Catholic organizations are on the front lines of that transition. 

In St. Paul, Minnesota, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet (St. Paul Province) have allowed their Provincial House to be adapted into a shelter that currently houses 23 families. 

When the congregation was first approached about potentially using a space on their campus to help those who are unhoused, the sisters were immediately on board — but they knew they had to approach their neighboring residents and businesses to get their buy-in. 

They hosted two heavily attended town hall meetings last winter — nearly 300 people came to the first one, and close to 200 attended the second. 

“Part of the explanation that needs to happen in breaking down stereotypes is who are these homeless families; how did it happen that they are homeless?” says Sister Cathy Steffens, a member of the community’s leadership team. “[People need to grasp] the idea that this could be any one of us that’s just living paycheck to paycheck, and if anything happened,” any one of us could be without a home.

“This is not chronic,” Sister Cathy added. “This is an emergency situation.”

 

Comprehending the Complex

More than half a million people across the United States are without permanent shelter, and nearly 28% of them are in California — where Father Joe’s Villages is the oldest homeless-services provider in the southern part of the state. 

The roots of the organization go back to 1950, with the dedication of St. Mary of the Wayside chapel, which provided soup kitchen-type services — but it began to change direction in the 1980s, when Father Joe Carroll — from whom the villages later took their name — was assigned to the ministry. Ordained in 1974, New York native Father Joe Carroll was a hard worker and a remarkable fundraiser — leading to a 1982 assignment from the bishop of San Diego to establish a “preferential option” for those experiencing homelessness. Just five years later, “Father Joe” expanded his ministry from handing out peanut-butter sandwiches to people on the streets to the opening of a $12-million facility that included housing for families and single adults, a medical clinic, childcare, meals and job training all under one roof. He retired as president emeritus of Father Joe’s Villages in 2011 and passed away earlier this year. 

“He recognized that the needs of the homeless were so complex that … to be truly effective [requires] a comprehensive array of programs and services,” says Deacon Vargas. 

Today, Father Joe’s Villages campus provides physical and mental health services, treatment for substance abuse, a dental clinic, a therapeutic childcare center and parenting programs, job training, a million hot meals a year, hot showers, and — of course — housing. 

“Everything I have, I owe to Father Joe,” says Michelle McElroy. Now 50, this mother of six first encountered Father Joe’s Villages when she left an abusive relationship and had nowhere to go. 

“I worked their program,” says McElroy, now living independently and employed by the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. “If you don’t work it, it’s not going to work for you.”

In addition to expanding programs and services, Father Joe’s Villages is focused on increasing different types of shelter for those in need. It has shelter beds in a number of facilities across the San Diego area — and is working on growing those numbers. Additionally, it operates a rapid-rehousing program and a transitional-housing program.

“We can also place [clients] in affordable housing of our own,” adds Deacon Vargas. “We own buildings. We were the first ones out there building affordable housing for the homeless population.”

A lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest contributors to homelessness today. In San Diego, the average studio or one-bedroom apartment costs at least $2,000 a month. That’s why Father Joe’s Villages established the Turning the Key initiative to build more than 2,000 units of affordable housing, using a model in which the rent paid by tenants would not only pay for the operation of the building but also the services they receive. 

While the initiative is not yet completed, the organization has made progress toward those 2,000 units with an interesting program that converts unused motels into affordable housing — and now, with the opening of the 14-story, 407-unit St. Teresa of Calcutta Villa on the campus, the organization will take another leap closer toward realizing that goal. 

 

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

The majority of capital for these projects comes from public funding, but 10% is sourced through philanthropy. For the St. Teresa of Calcutta Villa, for instance, Terry Caster and his family gave $10 million — and, to be clear in his motivation, he had asked that the building not be named after him or his family. 

Caster first got to know Father Joe in the 1980s, when the priest resided at San Diego’s St. Rita Church, the Caster family’s parish. Over the years, Caster contributed to a number of the priest’s projects to serve the homeless — but the St. Teresa of Calcutta Villa stands apart. After touring the building, which is expected to open in February 2022, and will take more than 500 people off the street, Caster said, “They are beautiful. You wouldn’t mind living there yourself.” 

Mother Teresa Villa
The 14-story St. Teresa of Calcutta Villa, shown in an artistic rendering, has a planned opening for February. | Courtesy of Father Joe’s Villages


And that’s the point, says Deacon Vargas. “We, as Catholics, should always have the poor in mind. That’s what mercy is all about. 

“Our mission is breaking the cycle of homelessness one life at a time: neighbors helping neighbors.” 

That’s exactly how the Carondelets view their Provincial House shelter. 

In the first five months of the program, which launched in March, 24 families moved into the Provincial House, regained their footing, and transitioned into permanent housing. 

“This could be a very polarizing item when it’s happening in your own backyard,” says John Viktora-Croke, executive director of operations for the sisters. “I anticipated pushback from neighbors, some staff even, with the stereotypes of homelessness. It simply just has not been the case.”

A helping hand at the right time can make a tremendous difference. Deacon Vargas likes to say that Father Joe’s Villages provides the resources — but the clients take advantage of them to turn their lives around. “We don’t just put individuals in units and walk away,” he says.

“We tap into that potential and restore that hope.”

 

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