By Vince Meehan
Have you ever thought about being homeless? Have you ever thought about what you would do if you found yourself without a place to live? While many Americans are one crisis away from homelessness, chances are you haven’t thought of the first step you would take once that happened, so it would be very scary to find yourself in that situation. However, here in San Diego, we are lucky to have a support system that has been very successful in getting homeless individuals back on their feet and into permanent housing. That support system is Father Joe’s Villages.
Father Joe’s Villages, now entering its 70th year of service in San Diego, was founded by Father Joe Carrol in 1950 and is currently helmed by his successor, president and CEO Deacon Jim Vargas. Deacon Jim comes from a corporate background where he formerly served as vice president for Citibank/Citicorp in Manhattan. After moving to San Diego to serve as the vice president and chief human resources officer at The Copley Press, Inc. when they owned the Union Tribune, he left corporate life to pursue a spiritual calling and went into full-time parish ministry at Mary, Star of the Sea Church in La Jolla, as an ordained deacon where he still serves today. He then accepted an offer to lead Father Joe’s Villages after Carrol resigned due to heath issues. Under Deacon Jim’s leadership, Father Joe’s Villages has skyrocketed to become the apex of homeless care in San Diego.
“We are the largest and the oldest homeless services provider in Southern California due to the depth of the services we offer,” Vargas said. “There really isn’t anything that someone [needs] who is suffering — and I do call it suffering — from the plight of homelessness that we can’t provide. We’re blessed in that way, and unique in that way. And that was calculated, that was done purposely because we realized that if we rendered some services to these individuals, and expected them to get other services elsewhere, it wasn’t going to happen. And that’s because of the nature of their situation, whether it’s not having access to transportation, or having full mental capacities, or whatever it is. That’s why we have what I call a one-stop shop here at Father Joe’s.”
So what do you do if you find yourself suddenly homeless? The simple answer is to go to Father Joe’s Villages. You need to report to the main office, which is still in the original building located at 1501 Imperial Ave. fairly close to Petco Park in Downtown San Diego. This is ground zero for Father Joe’s Villages, which has expanded its footprint for several blocks, and includes new facilities and residences. Also included in the footprint are current construction projects for large residential towers as well as land purchased for future towers. Father Joe’s Villages currently houses 2,000 residents a night in short- and long-term housing, but that number promises to increase as the projects become completed. Permanent, affordable housing is critical because without that final step in the process, the entire system is clogged up front. That is why Father Joe’s has been ramping up its own new affordable-housing projects. Once there, you simply go to the front desk and let them know you need help. It may take a bit of a wait, but you will be helped, and this first step is critical to receiving the assistance needed to get back on your feet. And while you are there, you can take part in the free meals that Father Joe’s Villages offers to hundreds of residents every day — no questions asked.
Due to the high demand for help, there is a waiting list to enroll. Currently, there are close to 200 people on this waiting list, so shelter might not be immediately available. And this is directly related to the critical shortage of affordable housing in San Diego. Without affordable housing for those who have successfully received training or treatment at Father Joe’s, they cannot leave the temporary housing provided, and therefore cannot make room for new arrivals. Priority is given to veterans and those who are disabled or sick, so unfortunately, if you are relatively healthy with no vet status, you may have to wait two months or so to begin receiving assistance. However, if you do have close friends or family that can shelter you for a short time, knowing that you will receive assistance in due time can make that arrangement less open-ended. But, without a doubt, contacting Father Joe’s Villages immediately is key to moving forward in getting back on the road to self-sufficiency.
Father Joe’s works closely with other homeless services to try and find emergency shelter for those it cannot take in, so if you cannot be admitted, there is still a good chance that they can help you find some sort of short-term shelter. Since Father Joe’s is the apex of homeless care in San Diego, getting into their program is by far the best chance of receiving the treatment needed for achieving self-sufficiency.
Along with housing, Father Joe’s provides medical help and job training for those in need. Their health clinic is critical for the chronically homeless who have health issues associated with living on the streets, including high blood pressure, diabetic issues and mental health stress. Deacon Jim says that if you didn’t already have mental health issues beforehand, the stress of homelessness will almost guarantee them after a prolonged stint. And malnutrition can lead to tooth loss, which is a hallmark feature of many of San Diego’s homeless. So, creating a health and dental clinic was paramount to ensuring a road to well-being. Deacon Jim pointed out that the life expectancy for the homeless population is around 50 years old, which is way below the average for healthy people. He considers having health care available to his “clients” — as he refers to them — as being paramount in the road to true recovery.
Father Joe’s Villages partnered with University of California, San Diego (UCSD) to create the medical and dental clinic that is now a huge part of the complex. Deacon Jim is proud of the partnership and the results it has given to his program. “We have a relationship that was developed with UCSD medical school, a number of years ago. They wanted to develop a dual residency in psychiatry and family practice, they needed a clinical site… and they came to us! We’re their only clinical site, and we have been for all these years. They’ve developed great doctors, who’ve gone off with this dual focus and as you can imagine, it’s really benefited our clients because when a patient comes in with a physical issue, the doctor is qualified and able to assess their mental state as well, and vice versa.”
Another feature Deacon Jim is proud of is their dispensary, which allows his clients to receive their medication on the spot. “Before, our doctors were writing prescriptions, and the expectation was these patients would go to the nearest CVS, Longs, Rite-Aid or wherever and have those prescriptions filled. Well, that wasn’t happening, and as a result, they weren’t getting any better. So we have a dispensary now. So that’s just an example of trying to come up with everything that can truly help these individuals with a hand up, it’s not a hand out… it’s a hand up so they can position themselves into self-sufficiency, which is what it’s all about. What we do, everything we do is geared towards breaking that cycle of homelessness.”
Another pillar of the formula to independence is job training. Vargas sees job training as a huge key to success for his clients and he partners with business leaders to provide this crucial education. “We have a sector-based training program, where we go out into the market and meet with employers and we see exactly the types of jobs they are trying to fill, and then we come back and we build curricula to address that,” Vargas said.
The program has a heavy focus on jobs that are very prevalent in San Diego. This is to ensure that his students have a maximum chance of landing that first job that can lead to self-sufficiency. This includes key positions at San Diego’s hotels, restaurants and resorts. “One of our oldest programs is our culinary arts program, it’s been around for about 15 years. This 12-week program is perfect for San Diego and we have graduated many chefs over the years. In fact, 92% of the students who have graduated have gone on to secure culinary jobs,” Vargas said. Other training classes include property management, as well as a security guard program. “Every program culminates in a graduation and a certificate. And those certificates are recognized by the employers because they know the training that people receive,” added Vargas.
Deacon Jim also sees his dental clinic as key in helping his clients succeed in the professional sector. This is because a healthy smile will put his students on an even playing field with other applicants. Vargas noted that malnutrition often manifests itself in tooth loss, so he has a “Wall of Smiles” in the clinic, which displays before-and-after photos of previous clients of his dental clinic. “While a new smile helps with self-esteem, it’s much more than that. There’s a practical aspect to it… who’s going to get the job? Is it this guy? Or this guy?” Vargas asked while pointing to the before and after images of a recent dental patient.
Vargas also noted not being able to chew food properly creates additional issues. “Digestion starts in the mouth. If you don’t have the proper number of teeth, you will not digest your food well, so there’s a lot of restorative dentistry that goes on here. And that’s not covered at all actually by any insurance companies, so that can be very expensive otherwise,” Vargas added.
So what would you do if you found yourself homeless? The clear answer is to contact Father Joe’s Villages immediately to get on that list for assistance. And while you yourself may not be at risk of this, you may be aware of somebody who is. With Deacon Jim’s focus on immediate shelter, health care, career training and eventual permanent affordable housing, the success rate is much higher than any other homeless services providers and is quickly becoming the de facto treatment center for San Diego’s homeless population.
— Vince Meehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.