By Kendra Sitton
Father Joe Carroll’s first major move when he took over the ministry that would later be called Father Joe’s Villages in his honor was to purchase a building on 16th and Market. He opened a small thrift store to fund the ministry’s work of caring for the poor. Nearly 40 years later, the retail side of Father Joe’s Villages has expanded to four thrift stores, weekly auctions and a huge warehouse. The newest thrift store, located in Chula Vista, will open in September.
“It was in order to start getting people engaged in the work of helping people in the streets by donating their goods, and not only by donating their goods, but then also making those goods available for those who could benefit from purchasing very good quality merchandise at low prices. It helped the community at large in a sense, but also help those who are on the street so it was a win-win,” explained Deacon Jim Vargas, the current President and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages.
When Father Joe started, the ministry served one meal per day to unhoused people. Through his tenacity, it expanded from the region’s oldest homeless service provider to the largest in terms of the breadth and depth of the services offered, according to Vargas.
Donating items remains an important first step for many San Diegan’s to engage with Father Joe’s mission.
“It’s a way for donors to give to us. They want to be part of the Father Joe’s Village experience. Maybe they don’t have big checks they can cut, maybe they don’t have time to volunteer, but this stuff where they can donate makes an impact,” said Joseph Scatena, director of retail operations. “Then they’ve had a good experience. They understand how it benefits the organization and then all of a sudden, they’re like ‘hey, I’m going to donate my car,’ and then maybe down the years they go ‘I can [send] a check.’ …It makes these long-term donors become part of the family.”
Father Joe’s partners with local businesses to receive some of those first-time donations. Uptown Cheapskate is a high-end resale clothing store based in Carlsbad. When people come in to sell their clothes, they are offered a chance to donate any clothes that the store declines to sell to a Father Joe’s bin. It is a convenient way for people to donate the clothes they are already trying to get rid of.
“When we tell them Father Joe’s, it’s really nice because then they know it’s not going to like a Good Will, they’re donating to the homeless. They feel good about it,” said Ashley Chappell of Uptown Cheapskate.
The wealthy clientele of the store often bring in high-quality items that Father Joe’s will be able to easily sell in their own thrift stores or in one of their auctions. A Father Joe’s driver picks up the bin stuffed with clothes behind the store’s counter every week.
Just two days after Carroll died on July 11, Henry Underwood made a trip in his blue Father Joe’s truck to pick up that week’s donation. Underwood has been with the organization for a few years but he knows it is a good workplace based on the fact that many of his coworkers have stayed with the organization for over 20 years.
“There’s a lot of great results even on the employee side,” Underwood said while loading the truck. “Father Joe’s is a really good organization.”
Underwood previously worked at a nonprofit where he said there was a lot of discrimination – something he has not encountered here. He said that sense of equality came from the top.
“I met [Father Joe] personally and I actually talked with him and actually been around him. He’s a very, very good person,” he said.
After making his pick-ups for the day, Underwood drops off his load at the warehouse on E Street where other staff members sort it into three main categories: household items, clothes and books. Around 80% of the items that come in are sold, either at weekly wholesale auctions, in thrift stores, a monthly web auction for the priciest items, or in clothing bales sold in India or Pakistan, according to Scatena. The remaining items were either earmarked for use directly for the village or are recycled.
The multiple methods of selling items are to get the most revenue possible for the donations. A $2,500 bike could easily sell in a thrift store but Scatena said they will likely make more than $1,000 off it through the online bidding on the last Sunday of the month. The thrift stores on Imperial, in Hillcrest, in Pacific Beach and now in Chula Vista submit lists of items they need that are then delivered to them as they are donated. Lower quality items or simply items the thrift stores do not need at the moment are sold in bulk at the weekly auctions. Often the buyers resell them at the swap meet or in Mexico. When clothes are falling apart or they get tons of the exact same shirt, they are baled and sent across the ocean.
Scatena has worked to make the retail operation more efficient in the past year since he was hired so the organization is a good steward of the donations. He said the retail side of the organization has made over a quarter of a million dollars in profit this year that will go straight back into funding Father Joe’s homeless services.
Staff vacancies have troubled the organization recently. On the website, over 70 open positions are looking for candidates. Scatena said a lack of drivers meant they can no longer do close to 80 pick-ups per day. The wait for an individual to have a driver come to pick up a donation is around three weeks. Scatena started a priority pick-up program where people who want to offload their discarded stuff quickly can pay a third-party company to pick up their items within 72 hours and drop it off at Father Joe’s as normal. Father Joe’s does not profit off the program but it helps the donors who take part in it have a positive experience.
The retail side of Father Joe’s has expanded and changed over the years, much like the rest of the organization, but remains stalwart in its mission of funding services for the poor, attracting new donors, and providing affordable clothing for San Diegans.
“The face of homelessness changed, sure, and the dynamics have changed and funding sources – they change. Those have all changed, but the basics, is what we continued,” Vargas said.
Despite Father Joe’s death, Vargas said his legacy lives on in the comprehensive services model he founded. Underwood said the connections Father Joe made locally and globally live on and continue impacting people even though he is gone.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.