Father Joe celebrates 80th birthday with stories about life

Father Joe Carroll in his home office.
Enjoying his retirement since 2011, Father Joe Carroll lives directly across the street from the homeless service provider he once led and that now bears his name.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

‘Life Stories of a Hustler Priest’ chronicles how a poor kid from the Bronx helped countless homeless San Diegans


His name is synonymous with programs that help homeless San Diegans, but Father Joe Carroll reveals something surprising in a new book about his life.

“I told him I didn’t want the job,” he wrote about the day in 1982 when Bishop Leo Maher told him he was being assigned to head the St. Vincent de Paul Center.

At the time, Carroll was head of St. Rita’s Parish, and he had no interest in being anything but a parish priest. He asked the bishop why he wanted him to lead the center that was focused on helping homeless people.

“He looked me straight in the eye and replied, ‘I asked a bunch of priests who they thought the biggest wheeler and dealer hustler was in our diocese, and your name was the only name on the list,’” he wrote about the bishop’s reply.

The anecdote is one of about 70 compiled in “Father Joe: Life Stories of a Hustler Priest,” scheduled to be released Monday, April 19, Carroll’s 80th birthday.

Although retired 11 years, Carroll still is hustling. He has signed copies of his book available to anyone who buys it directly from, and he said he plans to use an upcoming TV appearance to also promote “Sleepy Bear,” a sleep-inducing gummy bear made with cannabis compounds and melatonin that was developed by his grand nephew, Patrick Carroll.

He has slowed down, however, and progressing diabetes has left him disabled. He uses a mechanical wheelchair since both feet were amputated, and he has lost vision in his right eye. A typical day involves watching Fox News at his small home across the street from Father Joe’s Villages in downtown’s East Village, but he does venture out for events and enjoys going to Sycuan or Viejas casinos about twice a month.

Carroll said he had been approached to have his life story told in the past, and he once called off an attempt to write his biography after the book reached 1,200 pages.

“I said, ‘I think my life is interesting, but not 1,200 pages worth,” he said.

Another writer walked away with a $25,000 advance and was never seen again, and someone once wrote a screenplay that Carroll said didn’t depict his story correctly. Specifically, it showed him deciding to help homeless people after meeting a family on the streets of San Diego.

“Nothing could have been further from the truth,” he said, explaining that he was pushed into the job by Maher, who gave him a choice of either running the St. Vincent de Paul Center or leading a parish in the Mojave Desert town of Needles.

“Hmmm, San Diego or Needles?” Carroll joked about making his decision.

He agreed to work on the new book with Kathryn Cloward, a musician who had written a series of children’s books. Although she had never written a biography, Carroll was comfortable handing her the job because he had known her since her childhood. She had received her first Communion from Carroll, and her mother once was his secretary.

“It’s not really an autobiography,” Carroll said. “I’m a storyteller. That’s why it has stories instead of chapters. It’s a series of stories about my life.”

Those stories go back to his childhood in the Bronx, when his family of 10 lived in a two-bedroom apartment and he had his first job at 8 years old in a butcher shop.

He also reveals he was not a perfectly behaved youth.

“As teenagers, we’d go into the police station garage at night and steal the cop cars,” he wrote. “We’d drive around the block and leave the cars elsewhere so when the cops came back on duty, their cars were gone. Yes, we did some bad things.”

Carroll said one of his favorite stories in the book is “Five Finger Discount.” After enrolling at the University of San Diego in 1969, he was sent to a seminary school in Washington, D.C. , where he developed a booming business.

His brother-in-law had an electronics shop and could buy TVs, typewriters and other products at wholesale, and he agreed to sell them at the same price to Carroll, who would take them by train back to D.C. and sell them to priests and seminarians for a profit, but at a lower cost than at retail stores.

On return trips, Carroll bought liquor in D.C., where it was less expensive because D.C. didn’t tax alcohol, and then bring the bottles by train to his grateful family in New York.

While he had a penchant for making money, he was reluctant to embrace the moniker of hustler, which was introduced in a 1984 commercial.

Carroll had been tasked with raising money for a shelter for the St. Vincent de Paul Center, which was doing little more than handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when he was assigned to it in 1982.

After two unsuccessful years of fundraising, the center got a break when Channel 10 general manager Clayton Brace decided to make it the focus of the station’s annual fundraiser. Brace hired a producer to make a commercial.

Carroll showed up to the shoot and was handed a script that read, “Hi, I’m Father Joe. I’m a hustler. I’m here to hustle you out of your money.”

“I said, ‘I can’t say that!” Carroll wrote. “I’m a priest. Are you kidding me?”

The producer talked him into it, and the commercial aired on Oct. 6, 1984, during a San Diego Padres game.

It happened to be game four of the National League championship, a must-win game that ended with Steve Garvey hitting a two-run homer to break a tie at the bottom of the 9th inning, one of the most memorable moments in the team’s history.

“Everyone saw it,” Carroll said. “From that moment on, I became known as the hustler priest.”

Commercials of Carroll asking people to donate their cars, planes and other vehicles to the St. Vincent de Paul’s Center aired nationally. Carroll said he couldn’t go into restaurants without people recognizing him, and he still is stopped and asked to pose for photos.

At a golf tourney in Palm Springs, former President Gerald Ford spotted Carroll and asked, “Do you really sell all those cars?”

Many stories in the book are just two pages and about small anecdotes, such as converting a bathroom into an office at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store. They also include monumental moments, such as going through a pile of rejection letters and uncovering a surprise $250,000 donation from the Copley Foundation, which Carroll said helped validate all future fundraising.

In another story, Carroll wrote how Maher was upset with him when the budget for the projected $3.5 million shelter under construction had grown to $7 million. He was relieved of all duties except publicity, but got his job back when then-Padres owner Joan Kroc delivered a check for $3 million. The St. Vincent de Paul Joan Kroc Center opened in 1987.

For the people who claimed a shelter would devalue the neighborhood, Carroll said property in the area was $18 a square foot before the center was built, and it now is more than $500 a square foot.

Carroll is no longer active in any decisions at the nonprofit and is not sold on the “housing-first” approach that it and many other service providers are following. He said he believes homeless people with drug and alcohol problems need to have programs to overcome those issues, and he suspects many who receive housing won’t agree to receive help and fall back into homelessness.

He said he also disagreed with changing the name of the St. Vincent de Paul Center, which he considered sacred, to simply Father Joe’s Villages.

“I almost could never say the name Father Joe’s Villages,” he said. “But I’ve gotten used to it.”

— Gary Warth is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune