DEACON OF HOPE: Meet Jim Vargas of Father Joe's Villages and La Jolla

Editor’s Note: La Jolla Light’s “People in Your Neighborhood” series shines a spotlight on notable locals we all wish we knew more about! Light staff is out on the town talking to familiar, friendly faces to bring you their stories. If you know someone you’d like us to profile, send the lead via e-mail to editor@lajollalight.com or call us at (858) 875-5950.Not many people retire from the business world to preach. But in 2009, Jim Vargas joined Mary, Star of the Sea Church as its full-time deacon.

Before that, Vargas had served as a VP of human resources for both Citicorp in New York and the Copley Press, the La Jolla-based company — run by Helen Copley and her son, David — that once owned the San Diego Union-Tribune and that brought Vargas and his family to town 22 years ago.

But there can’t be anyone who has followed up a trajectory this unique with another change-up like Vargas’. In 2015, he became president and CEO of Father Joe’s Villages. Founded by Father Joe Carroll in 1950 as a small program distributing peanut-butter sandwiches in a Downtown San Diego chapel, it’s now the largest homeless-services provider in Southern California. Here, Vargas spearheads programs including the Turning the Key initiative, which currently is building 2,000 apartments for the homeless in downtown San Diego.

Vargas, 62, invited the Light to chat in a conference room in the rear of the Mary, Star of the Sea pastoral center. He no longer has an office at the Catholic parish but still officiates weekend baptisms and weddings, and delivers the occasional Sunday sermon.

Was joining God’s team your way of serving penance for your corporate years? Did you have something to square?

“Well, maybe! (laughs) I’m still doing penance. None of us get away from penance. But actually, I thought I had vocation to priesthood when I was younger. I was in the seminary for four years. But then, when I shifted from what’s called minor seminary to major seminary, that’s when my wife, Fran, and I sparked a romance. We’ve been married 42 years now.

Then, four or five years after we arrived in La Jolla, I went to vocational formation, on a part-time basis, to become a deacon. And the way I came to that decision was through prayer. I said, ‘Lord, where do you want me next?’ And I don’t know about you, but God is never very direct with me. It’s always very circumspect. So it’s not as if that answer came down and said, ‘I want you in the ministry.’ But it was through prayer I came to realize it.”

How did you come to join Father Joe’s?

“I thought that being deacon full-time would take me for the rest of my years, I really did. And then, someone called me to consider serving on the board of Father Joe’s Villages. The chair said to me, ‘We’re looking for a president and CEO and would you be interested?’ And Father Joe’s Villages is a great combination for me. This very much is a business. It’s a $36 million budget that I have, 450 employees for whom I’m responsible. So I’m able to bring my business acumen to the table but also my pastoral side. On a nightly basis, we provide some level of housing to over 2,000 people. When you see individuals who have lost all sense of hope, who are so broken for so many reasons that they don’t even make eye contact with you, and then you show them compassion and give them the support that they need, and you watch them come into themselves and realize that they do have potential, that you can make a difference in their lives and their families — that’s what drives me.”

What’s the latest on the Turning the Key initiative?

“In the third quarter of this year, we’re scheduled to break ground on a 14-story building on Commercial and 14th streets downtown. It’s going to have 407 units — mostly studios, some one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms. So the sum total of people who will be positively impacted, who will be off the streets, is about 550 people. Also, we’re on schedule to close escrow, in the middle of this year, on a motel in South Bay with 83 units. I hope to have that up and running by the end of this year.”

What makes you confident that homeless people will accept all the shelter you’re building? Most people we encounter on the streets of La Jolla say they prefer being there.

“I’m asked that question all the time. And I would contend, from the work that we’ve done, that those who say they want to be on the street, they really don’t. Really, who in his right mind wants to be on the street?”

Well, aren’t a high percentage of them battling mental illness? Just today, a homeless man profiled by the Light in 2017 suggested that we should publish a story about all the CIA agents carrying weapons-grade plutonium who are hiding among us.

“About 45 percent of those with whom we work have some type of mental-health issues, and about 25-to-30 percent have some type of substance issue. And some have both. But our experience has been that, with the right level of resources, support and tenacity — because it really takes being tenacious — the majority of homeless people can be convinced to accept help.

There was a three-year program (2014-2017) called Project 25 that we were uniquely asked to take on, through funding that we received, to work with the Top 25 heaviest users of the system — those totally mired in homelessness, who had been chronically homeless for years and years. All providers knew who they were — the emergency rooms, the police. They were costing the community millions of dollars a year. At the end of the program, even though this was a costly program, the community saved $3.7 million over the course of that three years. And all those lives were changed and saved.

Do you think we put up a sign saying, ‘Come on in, we want to help you?’ Oh no. Just enticing these individuals into the program was a feat unto itself. And that’s why there was a team we put together targeted to this population. Our medical director would go out, day after day, and sit on the corner and just talk to this one person, who didn’t want to commit, who wasn’t trusting, who had been abused. Forget how long it took. Finally, he convinced him to come into the program.”

What do you think is the biggest cause of homelessness? Is it economic hardship, the closing of mental hospitals, drug addiction or something else?

“I think it’s all of the above and then some. The opioid crisis is wreaking havoc as well. But the one thing I will say is that it’s extremely expensive to live in San Diego. The average one-bedroom apartment costs $1,800 a month and we have one of the lowest rental vacancy rates in the United States. We’re tied with L.A. at about between 3 and 3.5 percent. At that level, it means that no sooner does an apartment go on the market than it gets swooped up. Sometimes, there are bidding wars.The combination of the high cost of rentals and low rental vacancy rate is toxic. We see people who have hanging on by their fingernails and then something happens to their economic situation. They get sick and they’re out of a job for an extended period of time and they use up their savings. We see people who are professionals — PhDs, teachers, lawyers. At least 25 percent of the population is two paychecks away from being on the streets.”

How close to an answer to the homeless crisis do you think Turning the Key will come?

“It depends on how you define ‘answer.’ There will always be homelessness. There will always be poor. That’s the world in which we live. But I do believe — maybe because I’m the eternal optimist — that if we as a community are able to have the infrastructure that’s necessary and effective and efficient, then we really can put our arms around this issue and make a vast difference in reducing the number of these individuals.

While you will always have people who will fall into homelessness, if part of that infrastructure is catching them as soon as they do or just before, then we’ll have a lot more success — easier and less-expensive success — than once they’ve been out there chronically for 10 or 20 years. Because even if they didn’t have mental-health issues when they fell into homelessness, after being on the street that long, they’re going to develop something.”

What was your impression of Mary Star of the Sea’s decision to cancel its meals program for the homeless in 2017?

“At that point, I had moved onto Father Joe’s Villages. So I wasn’t part of the decision. It was really the pastor of the church, so he’s a good person to ask. But I would say that we need to do better by those who are on the streets. And so obviously, the basics of a meal and providing a roof over a person’s head, we need to do that as human beings. But more importantly than that, where does that take them? If you provide temporary measures, but you don’t provide the longer-term solution, what are we truly accomplishing? So that’s why I believe that we should be helping them acutely for something as basic as providing a meal, but also, we should be getting them somewhere in the longer-term.”

Both you and Father Joe grew up in the South Bronx during a very different time. Do you think being in such a burned-out hull of a neighborhood gave you the perspective that hope can be found anywhere?

“I think so. But what I mainly had going for me also was a strong family structure. I’m Puerto Rican, first generation here. What my family instilled in me was a sense that education is very important, that it can be better than this. I will tell you that I had friends growing up who did not make it out of the South Bronx, through being shot, through bad drug deals. I was never into that, because of my family structure and because of the church. The combination of the two is what truly made a difference in my life.

By the way, did you know that Father Joe and I grew up only three blocks away from each other? I didn’t find out until he had an episode and I visited him in the hospital and we got to talking. He’s 15 years older than I am and, by the time I was born, he had already moved.”

How is Father Joe doing?

“I mean, his health is precarious. He’s been a diabetic all his life, so that’s wreaked havoc. I don’t know if you know, but he’s a double-amputee now. And what most people don’t realize is that he’s lost his eyesight totally in one eye and 50 percent in the other. That said, though, he’s in good spirits. We take care of all his needs. He lives in one of the houses owned by the Villages. And he hasn’t had any hospital episodes now in, my gosh, at least six months, which is good. Thank you for asking.”

Does he still provide advice or guidance on the charity?

“Oh yeah. I make it a point to, at least once a month, have lunch with him. So I take him a sandwich and we chat. He likes In-N-Out burgers.”

Your job is to enmesh yourself in such depressing situations. Yet you smile a lot when you speak. How do you manage that?

“You know, it’s interesting. I’ve never even thought about it in those terms. But you’re right. Can it be depressing? It brings me to tears sometimes, it absolutely does. But I focus more on the potential in these individuals, on the success stories. I live for that. I get up in the morning and I’m psyched. I’m psyched because I’m playing my little part in making a difference in the lives of individuals and in the community. That’s what excites me.”

This doesn’t seem like the kind of job you will ever want to retire from.

“Yeah, you’re right. I’m having so much fun, and I have so much joy in the process, that I wonder. When the Lord says, ‘It’s time, your ministry’s done here’ — not necessarily because of death but because he wants to take me to something else — so be it, I’m open to it. But right now, I’m just on fire.”

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