It was painfully inevitable that San Diego would lose Father Joe Carroll sooner than it could stand to lose him. But that sad reality doesn’t make his sudden absence any easier to accept. His death late last week at age 80 of complications from diabetes comes as the region is experiencing an explosion in the homeless population he worked so hard for so long to help get off the street. That work will continue to be done by the institution bearing his name — and those trying to live up to it.
Carroll began speaking out about diabetes care — and calling himself a “bad patient” who should have changed his diet, and who would have changed it but for the fact he was an Irishman who adored potatoes — after having both of his feet amputated because of low oxygen flow caused by the disease in recent years. He knew that the amputations would likely cut his life short, but he told KPBS in 2017 that he was speaking out because it might save “at least one person.”
Saving people was his life’s mission.
Few if any San Diegans have helped as many people as Carroll did with his comprehensive efforts to improve the lives of local homeless people. Father Joe’s Villages — originally St. Vincent de Paul Village — provides shelter to about 2,000 people a night at a four-block center in the East Village. It also offers health care and meals, and strives to help people with job-skill training.
Born in New York City in 1941, Carroll moved to Southern California in his 20s and was ordained in 1974 at the University of San Diego. He was a priest at St. Rita Catholic Church before being assigned to manage a Downtown Catholic Church-run thrift shop in 1982 when its previous leader retired. Such modest roots kept Carroll tied to San Diego over a nearly 30-year period in which he — a self-described “hustler priest” — built a nationally acclaimed network of donors and collaborators to help homeless residents. When he retired in 2011 on his 70th birthday, he oversaw a “one-stop shop” homeless-support organization with 500 employees and a $40 million annual budget.
Carroll emphasized seeing the homeless as people first. Besides helping them (helping us because we’re all in the same community) with shelter, food, health care and vocational training, he also focused on providing therapeutic care to the children of homeless people to respond to what his website called their “unique academic, psychological and social challenges.”
Paul Downey, the chief executive officer of the nonprofit Serving Seniors, a nonprofit that helps adults with low incomes, said of Carroll: “His passion and commitment to helping those in need is legendary. He humanized the homeless. He made them real people. He made it cool to care.”
That Carroll was personally beloved by many because of his life of public service, his sense of humor and his love of San Diego will be made plain at 10 a.m. Tuesday by the speakers at his memorial service at St. Rita’s Catholic Church. Fittingly, it is open to the public, and the outpouring of gratitude will be a sight to see. San Diegans, please say a prayer for Carroll and all those he loved and who loved him — and please seek to be as compassionate as he was in understanding and helping the downtrodden. San Diego as a whole, as a community, suddenly has less compassion than it did just last Saturday. Luckily, Carroll’s life’s work will continue regionwide in those he helped and inspired.