SAN DIEGO — On paper the issue is a fight over what to do with an industrial section of downtown San Diego called Centre City East, a jumble of warehouses, vacant lots, bus and trolley yards, and aging businesses with fences topped by barbed wire.
But the fight could just as well be called a struggle for the soul of California's second-largest city.
On one side is Roman Catholic Msgr. Joseph Carroll, the cherubic "Father Joe" who has cajoled and politicked his way to local fame and national acclaim as the head of the St. Vincent de Paul Village for the Homeless, which has 270 employees and an annual budget of $20 million.
From a complex of buildings in Centre City East, St. Vincent's dispenses food, shelter, clothing, child care, medical care and rehabilitation services to the homeless, the addicted and the desperate.
On the other side of the Centre City East dispute is Councilman Juan Vargas, who studied to be a priest before leaving the Jesuits to get married and attend Harvard Law School. As a Jesuit novice, he had worked with the homeless on Skid Row in Los Angeles and at a soup kitchen in the Bronx.
The talk in political circles is that the engaging, media-friendly Vargas, a moderate Democrat elected to the City Council two years ago, may be on the fast track to higher office. Right now, though, the track has led to an angry collision with Father Joe.
Carroll wants St. Vincent's to grow in scope and size, to serve more meals and more people. He sees only good: that St. Vincent's serves not only the homeless but also the low-income residents of the heavily Latino neighborhoods just east of Centre City East.
Vargas wants St. Vincent's to shrink, to stop feeding street denizens who are high on booze or drugs. Attracting the homeless and shiftless with free food is only enabling them to wallow in their addiction, he argues, as well as hurting the neighborhoods.
Vargas believes that St. Vincent's is a roadblock to San Diego realizing its dream of building a downtown sports arena and attracting a professional basketball or hockey team. The council's preferred site for an arena is a block from St. Vincent's, which Carroll says is fine.
The dispute includes clashes of politics, social welfare and theology. Each combatant believes he is acting as Christ would if he were trying to solve the problem of homelessness.
"If someone was on drugs or alcohol and killing themselves or others, I don't think Christ would say, 'That's interesting, now here's some free food,' " Vargas said. "He would say, 'Wait a minute, you have a sin, and your sin is addiction, and I'm not going to let you continue in your addiction.' God was tough like that."
Many of those being fed free at St. Vincent's get $291 a month from the General Relief welfare program and use it to buy drugs or alcohol, Vargas asserts. Take away the free food, he reasons, and they will "hit rock bottom" and be forced into changing their lives.
Carroll, who has been lauded by the United Nations and the Bush and Clinton administrations, calls Vargas' notion flawed social theory and flawed Christianity.
"You know," Carroll said mockingly, "I remember there were 5,000 people with nothing to eat and Christ fed them, and he didn't require drug testing. Was he being an enabler? Christ offered opportunities and so do I. He even chose 12 guys and one failed him, but he still gave them a chance."
That Vargas studied to be a Jesuit does not impress Carroll. "A lot of people spend time in the seminary," he said. "It doesn't mean they get anything out of it."
The fight between the priest and the ex-novice has been topic No. 1 on the local political agenda for weeks.
Much of the anger aimed at Carroll has come from neighborhood and Latino activists, who have long complained about the impact of St. Vincent's and other social service agencies in Centre City East, including the Salvation Army, the San Diego Rescue Mission, a detoxification center, and a day center for the homeless.
Carroll's donors have also been targeted for criticism. Among the financial angels of St. Vincent's have been McDonald's owner and former Padres baseball team owner Joan Kroc, the late shopping center magnate Ernie Hahn, BMW-Honda dealer Bill Hoehn and developer Douglas Manchester, as well as IBM, Bank of America, Chevron, Cox Cable and San Diego Gas & Electric.
"These well-heeled folks come down here and give to Father Joe and feel real good about it," said activist Al Ducheny, who is married to Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego). "They don't care if our neighborhoods are destroyed by what they're doing."
Even novelist Joseph Wambaugh, who lives in San Diego, offered a pro-Vargas view to a newspaper columnist: "Father Joe is a world-class enabler."
Carroll protests that the real magnet drawing the homeless to neighborhoods adjoining Centre City East is a welfare office in the middle of Barrio Logan, a half-mile from St. Vincent's.