Mike McGarvin, founder of the Poverello House homeless shelter, has died

Poverello House founder Mike McGarvin bows his head as Poverello executive director Cruz Avila concludes a memorial service for Fresno area homeless on Feb. 14, 2017.
Poverello House founder Mike McGarvin bows his head as Poverello executive director Cruz Avila concludes a memorial service for Fresno area homeless on Feb. 14, 2017. Fresno Bee file

Mike McGarvin, the founder of the Poverello House homeless shelter in downtown Fresno who was known by many affectionately as “Papa Mike,” died Saturday at the age of 73.

Mr. McGarvin helped thousands of people get off the streets of Fresno since 1973, when he started serving peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches out of the back of his car after he worked a production shift at The Fresno Bee. That led to the creation of the Poverello House, which opened its first physical location a year later in downtown. The nonprofit now provides homeless people with shelter, support services, programs, and 1,600 hot meals a day.

Mr. McGarvin was hospitalized earlier this year at Saint Agnes Medical Center due to respiratory issues, and had previously been in and out of hospital’s intensive care unit.

His death drew reactions from some of the city’s top leaders, including Fresno Mayor Lee Brand.

“Collaboration makes things happen and Mike McGarvin was Fresno’s symbol of collaboration,” Brand wrote in a statement. “When poverty and homelessness seemed impossible to change, ‘Papa Mike’ showed us the way. His courage and compassion will be sorely missed and our prayers go out to his family, friends, as well as the volunteer community he led through his tireless ministry.”

Former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who is now president/CEO of the Central Valley Community Foundation, said the Poverello House and Mr. McGarvin have been instrumental in helping reduce chronic homelessness in Fresno.

“I think the Poverello House has become the standard in our community for compassionate, charitable acts towards our fellow residents that need help,” Swearengin said. “Mike’s legacy is already experienced every day by the hundreds of people who are served by the Poverello House. That’s going to continue for years to come.”

Swearengin said data collected over a year ago showed chronic homelessness in Fresno had been reduced by as much as 55 percent compared to what it was when she took office as mayor in 2009. At that time, she said, Fresno had some of the largest homeless encampments in the nation.

Mr. McGarvin’s heart for helping homeless people was rooted in experience. He spent time in San Francisco in the 1960s volunteering to help homeless people in a program he used as a model for Poverello House that he would later found after moving to the city in 1972 to be closer to family. Mr. McGarvin also converted to Catholicism in San Francisco, and his faith would inform his future charitable work without being preachy.

“I liked the idea of St. Francis, to accept people as they are,” Mr. McGarvin said in a 1980 article published in The Bee. “Don’t push religion on people. The people down there (in west Fresno) have other problems and need our other services – food, clothing, shelter – more than religion.”

Jim Grant, social justice director of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, remembers Mr. McGarvin for his commitment to caring for the “most hurting, most vulnerable parts of our community.”

“That ministry has grown to such a powerful presence in our community,” Grant said of the Poverello House.

“Papa Mike was so humble about what he created,” wrote Cruz Avila, executive director of the Poverello House, in a statement, “but what we have now is a resource that meets people where they are in life. No questions asked. He was blessed with a gift that allowed him to treat our clients with dignity – something many of them never experienced in their lives before encountering Papa Mike or the Poverello House.”

To that aim, family and friends say his great sense of humor helped people feel comfortable and cared about.

Mr. McGarvin also worked for The Fresno Bee as a photoengraver, retiring from the newspaper in 1992, and was an avid photographer who chronicled life on the streets of Fresno in two books, “On the Level: Walking the Streets with Mike McGarvin” and “Papa Mike.”

Mary McGarvin requested privacy on Monday afternoon, but said in a statement that McGarvin was a loving husband, father and grandfather who was loved by so many.

Avila said in May that Mr. McGarvin remained involved with the organization and was consulted before any major decision was made at the facility, which continues to expand. The Poverello House moved into its current location downtown in the 1980s.

Mr. McGarvin received numerous awards throughout his life for his work at the Poverello House – most recently, an honorary doctorate from Fresno State that was presented during the university’s commencement in May.

Mr. McGarvin’s friend, Bruce Whitsitt, has described him as “probably the most generous person I’ve ever met.”

“He is warm, has an infectious and self-deprecating sense of humor, is courageous, loyal and absolutely brimming with compassion for anyone who is hurting,” Whitsitt says. “He’s the kind of guy who accepts people as they are, and treats them with a kindness that makes them feel like they are worth something. The world is far less dark because of Mike McGarvin.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Mike McGarvin

Age: 73

Born: July 24, 1943

Died: July 1, 2017

Occupation: Founder of Poverello House, retired Fresno Bee photoengraver

Survivors: Wife Mary McGarvin, daughter Clare McGarvin, and grandson, Tyler McGarvin-Shaw

Services: Arrangements pending

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