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More on homelessness

Click here to learn more about the documentary, and get answers to frequently asked questions on homelessness and the shelter system.
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Father Joe Carroll of ‘Father’s Joe’s Villages,’ the shelter featured in the MSNBC documentary ‘No Place Like Home,’ answered a few questions on homelessness.

What are the common misconceptions people have about homeless people?

Father Joe: We hear it all the time: “Why do you bother helping the homeless. They can’t or don’t want to be rehabilitated. It’s a waste of time and money.” It’s true that approximately 20 percent of the homeless population lives on the streets by choice, and while we can encourage them to change, we cannot force it upon them. The assumption that the homeless do not want help is a slap in the face of the thousands of people who access our services every day as they try to regain their self-sufficiency.

People often assume the homeless population is comprised of those embattled with alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness or a combination of those ailments. It’s a fact that a dwindling minority of people living on the streets does indeed reinforce the common homeless stereotype. Sadly, though, a growing number of working families with children, the disabled, senior citizens and others on fixed incomes are finding themselves without permanent housing.

Through layoff, illness, abuse, divorce, the death of a spouse, the rising cost of housing or government-assistance cutbacks, hard-working people — typical suburbanites trying to make ends meet — have been showing up at our doors.

Many people often assume the homeless are bums simply looking for a handout, panhandling to make enough to buy another bottle of cheap whiskey. We’d say to those people: “Come to the Village and look into the eyes of a child whose father - the breadwinner of the family - has recently died. Look into the eyes of the mother, whose only chance at safety, nourishment and hope brought her to the doors of Father Joe’s Villages. Do they look like bums?”

What are the challenges they face in trying to get back on their feet?

Answer: There are three main obstacles standing in the way of people trying to get back on their feet in San Diego: The most daunting challenge for families and individuals trying to regain self-sufficiency is the area’s high cost of housing. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in San Diego is more than $1,200 and the median price of a single-family home eclipses $440,000.

Secondly, most of the city’s jobs are tied to the service industry, whose pay lingers at or very close to the state’s minimum wage. The absence of work that offers a livable wage in San Diego is a major factor that stands in the way of families trying to get back on their feet.

Lastly, there is a shortage of rehabilitative beds in San Diego. The number of beds available to the less fortunate in the city total 1,800, with close to one-half of those beds being provided by Father Joe’s Villages (we are the single-largest provider of homeless services in San Diego). The urban homeless population is estimated at over twice as much as the number of available beds.

What are the circumstances specific to San Diego that make it easier/harder for you, as well as the people under the shelter?

Answer: Father Joe’s Villages is grateful to be supported by a caring and compassionate community. More than 10,000 San Diegans volunteer at the Villages at least once during a calendar year. Hundreds have made their volunteer commitment at the Villages a weekly ritual, whether it’s serving a meal, teaching a child to read, facilitating a resume-writing workshop or administering care to an elderly woman in our medical clinic.

The Villages’ efforts are bolstered further by a staff that has placed compassion, respect, empathy, empowerment and dignity at the top of its rehabilitative agenda.

Sadly, the burgeoning real estate market is as much a hindrance to Father Joe’s Villages as it is to its clients. With the redevelopment of San Diego, property values in its urban center have skyrocketed, making it nearly impossible for the Villages to acquire land to expand its facilities and services.

What can viewers do to help?

Answer: MSNBC’s viewers can help by supporting human-services agencies in their own communities. Every, town, city and state has a homeless problem, and while there may be agencies in place to offer assistance, those organizations themselves are barely surviving. By volunteering at or making a cash donation to Father Joe’s Villages or agencies like it, less fortunate members of our communities are provided a better chance of recovery.

People can also help by making an effort to fully understand the homeless population and issues needy children, families and individuals face. It’s easy to poke fun at an intoxicated bum on the street — but there’s nothing funny about it. A homeless person is someone’s child, father, mother, sibling, husband or wife. Much as we wouldn’t turn our backs on our own family during its time of need, America cannot turn its back on the needy.

How do you feel about the film? I heard its terribly difficult to get access to shelters? What does he hope it will achieve?

Answer: The film focused on only one of the programs: the emergency family cold-weather shelter. The glimpse it gave into the lives of the chronically homeless was compelling. It showed many of the struggles homeless families face on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the documentary gave only an abbreviated view of the programs and services Father Joe’s Villages offers San Diego’s less fortunate.

There was little mention of our main facility that fills two city blocks and offers short- and long-term housing for up to 900 children, family members and single adults nightly. A free medical and dental clinic, counseling programs, full-service children’s services department, adult-basic education, chemical-dependency programs, as well as a career and education department are all located and available on-site. The Villages also serves more than 4,000 free meals daily to its residents and hungry members of the community. Moreover, the agency offers 135 affordable living units for San Diegans who are disabled or live on fixed incomes in apartment buildings owned by the Villages. Located in the lobby of one of those apartment buildings is our on-site, county-run public elementary school.

Father Joe’s Villages is a comprehensive homeless rehabilitation center where clients can stay for up to two years while they access the programs and services we offer to help them get back on their feet. The organization’s ultimate goal is self-sufficiency, which is measured by gainful employment that pays a livable wage and permanent housing.

The breadth of the services we provide was never mentioned in “No Place Like Home.” It paints an inaccurate picture of the current state of homelessness in San Diego by focusing on a temporary program often utilized by those that are chronically homeless whose only concern is to have a roof over their heads during the cold winter months. There are families from the winter shelter who transferred to our short- and long-term programs at the Villages’ main facility and went on to regain self-sufficiency after accessing the comprehensive rehabilitative programs we offer. Their stories were not told.

Typically, it’s very difficult for anyone with a camera to gain access to shelters. Father Joe’s Villages, however, has nothing to hide. On the contrary, we want to share with America the innovative and comprehensive services we provide our less fortunate neighbors. We never turn down requests by members of the media who are seeking access to the Villages for a story — positive or negative — on homelessness. We believe that media coverage spreads awareness and our message of hope. Unfortunately, despite the fact that producers of the film had full-access to our agency — unprecedented in homeless-services circles — they failed to make any mention of the many success stories that have come from Father Joe’s Villages.

Our only hope is that people take an active role in educating themselves about the issues the homeless face and contribute time in their communities to make positive change.

Father Joe Carroll is the president of Father Joe’s Villages, a homeless-services organization located in San Diego, Calif. The organization is known worldwide for its successful and innovative programs to help the less fortunate regain self-sufficiency.

While he was interviewed by the producers of “No Place Like Home,” Father Joe did not appear in the film.

Producer’s Note: Although no one-hour program could tell the complete story of homelessness in San Diego, and Father Joe’s Villages’ significant role in battling the problem, we feel the program succeeds in putting a human face on this important issue, and we hope viewers will agree.