Papa MikeWe’d sit eating fried fish, gazing out an E Street window as a Friday’s boiling sun set. He wore overalls, doing the hands-on equipment work that produced a daily Fresno Bee. I wore a shirt and tie, fidgeting with words to avoid libel, writing a few snappy headlines to lure readers and with deadlines wrapped around me like the rope in Clint Eastwood’s “Hang ‘Em High.”
My eyes were on the next edition. His were on the broken-down street people a few blocks away along the tracks in downtown Fresno, whom he feed sandwiches and, eventually, for whom he’d create an enduring and increasingly important Fresno safety net called the Poverello House, “the Pov.”
He was Mike, Mike McGarvin. He’s become Papa Mike, whom I’ve not seen or chatted with for a number of years. The problems — hunger, homelessness, addiction, violence — have risen around him (and those of us who care to notice) like a tsunami of molasses, threatening to engulf and suffocate. Some may not like to acknowledge it, but you can see the problems in Clovis — sprawled on the grass outside fast-food stores on Shaw Avenue, in the fields and cloistered areas of churches in off hours, striding purposefully or aimlessly through residential areas.
Fresno County’s latest snapshot of the homeless population estimates the numbers have increased by more than 600 since last year, to 4,378.
We at Community Medical Centers are partners with Papa Mike, his staff and other advocates for the needy. We continually care for the homeless in Community Regional Medical Center’s emergency department, and are working with the Hospital Council and other hospitals and clinics to soon open medical respite centers so some of those healing homeless have a bridge to whatever the future holds.
Clearly, all of this is not enough. The problems have been chronicled in depth, and groups like Fresno First Steps Home, consisting of of hospitals (including Community) and others, under the aegis of Mayor Swearengin, are pushing incremental remedies.
When I was a Bee reporter, I interviewed Mike numerous times after he left the paper and made ministry his life’s mission. How are things? We’re keeping busy with beans and stitches, he’d often say, in reference to the violence that accompanies street life and addiction. Now, his newsletters increasingly talk about mental illness, brawls, knife-play and rising tempers, and his words are tinged with frustration.
But among Mike’s gifts, from being around the block many many times, are that of perspective and of belief in a higher power. He ended a recent column this way:
“How much more violence would there be if the Pov wasn’t here? No doubt, there would be even more injury and probably more death. I think we do a lot to ease the city’s violent crime by providing basic necessities, a safe place to rest and understanding staff people who can bring calm to crazy situations.”
Community and other health providers, too, are trying to ease such chaos and allow for healing by offering care and safe places.
Been years since I had a fish taco with Papa Mike, but we continue as part of that circle of trust, persisting in places of tumult and hurt.