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'Hustler Priest' Awaits Biggest Target

Charity: Msgr. Joe Carroll, renowned in San Diego for his work on behalf of the homeless, sees GOP convention as source of food, money and media attention for the people he tries to help.

July 30, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Msgr. Joe Carroll looks at the Republican National Convention coming to town and sees the things he wants most: food, money and media attention.

The GOP convention is heaven come to Earth for the 55-year-old Carroll, known locally as the "hustler priest" for his indefatigable scrounging, begging, wheedling, fund-raising and headline grabbing on behalf of San Diego's homeless.

Never has San Diego played host to so many people with so much political clout, corporate cash and media power--all elements that Carroll has used adroitly over the past 13 years.

Carroll has transformed a thrift store and breakfast giveaway into a comprehensive, nationally known program that provides meals, shelter, counseling, job training and medical and dental care to the homeless and the working poor.

"I'd like the Republicans to see that you can help the homeless, that it's not hopeless," Carroll said.

And delegates can be assured that they will not be hectored by a radical reformer who wants more money from government. Carroll is a self-described dyed-in-the-wool Republican, a favorite of Gov. Pete Wilson and state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren.

He believes in public subsidies for homeless programs as a means to leverage private contributions. He says government should reward programs that work and not those that do not. With two local companies, he is developing a software program to allow officials to know instantly how public money for the homeless is being spent.

Only a quarter of the $10-million annual budget for his St. Vincent de Paul Society Village comes from public coffers; the rest is private. Carroll's approach has been praised by Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Jack Kemp and, more recently, by President Clinton and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros.

Still, Carroll has his critics, particularly activists in the low-income neighborhoods directly next to St. Vincent. They complain that, in his single-minded devotion to the homeless, Carroll is insensitive to problems caused by homeless people who are attracted to St. Vincent but then wander into nearby neighborhoods.

"I told him once, 'I know you are doing the Lord's work, but I wish you would lighten up,' " said Rachael Ortiz, executive director of the Barrio Station social service center. "We get his overflow problems. He's never done it to me, but I've seen him snap at people who offer constructive criticism."

During the convention, Carroll plans tours for delegates, reporters and anyone else. He'll be on Fox Television and has arranged to show his new health clinic to Elizabeth Dole.

A picture of Carroll and Bob Dole will hang in a prominent place. "If it were the Democrats coming, I'd put up my picture of me and Clinton," Carroll said.

Carroll has been promised all the leftover food from the party being thrown for 5,000 journalists by the San Diego Union-Tribune. Dozens of chefs will provide a smorgasbord of delicacies, all coordinated by famed chef Wolfgang Puck.

"I think I'll have to teach my people what the food is and how to eat it," Carroll said with a laugh.

He hopes to get leftovers from other bashes as well. He's more than willing to provide a blessing, a Mass, a homily or a dinnertime prayer. St. Vincent serves 4,000 meals daily.

"He's always got his hand out, but how can you say no to someone who's so selfless, who still lives in two rooms at St. Rita's [Roman Catholic Church]," said Dennis Morgigno, a television journalist who is writing a book about Carroll. "You put up with the shameless hucksterism because he has found a way to do things for poor people that nobody else has done before."

One Carroll technique is to seek donations from conventions: milk and cheese from the dairy industry convention, computers from the high-tech conventions, medical supplies from the pharmaceutical convention. He appeared in a TV commercial for a car dealer.

"The future of homeless programs is in public-private partnerships, and nobody in the nation does that better than Father Joe," said Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), who turned to Carroll for advice and fund-raising to help her start a shelter in Charlotte.

St. Vincent has built three buildings, including one named for patron Joan Kroc, former owner of the San Diego Padres. A hallmark of St. Vincent is its emphasis on safety.

Every inch of the 855-bed sleeping quarters is visible to cameras, and a security force works around the clock. Troublemakers and those who persist in using drugs or alcohol are booted out.

Anti-drug lectures are unequivocal: "The counselors tell them: 'Don't give me that about what the government did to you. You made the decision to put that stuff in your veins. You can make the decision to stop.' "

Carroll purchased a 60-unit apartment building for $1 from the agency cleaning up the savings-and-loan debacle. He oversees two houses for AIDS patients in San Diego and a 300-bed homeless shelter in Las Vegas.

He was an ebullient but obscure parish priest ("I was best known for putting on good spaghetti dinners") when he was drafted by the bishop to run the thrift shop and breakfast giveaway.

With infighting skills honed while growing up in the Bronx, Carroll can engage in fearsome feuds. He threatened to begin a recall movement against a city councilman opposed to expanding St. Vincent. He is angry over the council's decision not to turn a former Navy base into homeless housing.

"There are those of us who don't believe you should engage in political disputes or recall movements," said David Malcolm, past president of the St. Vincent board. "But Father Joe has a vision of what he wants to do, and he's totally committed to helping his people."

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