Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

A piece of the Fresno homeless story

I posted a blog titled “Thoughts on a wonderful cabinet-maker” on July 31. It was about a man named Mike, a friend dating back to our school days in Lindsay in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mike at his best had many virtues. But he spent too many of his adult years behind bars or homeless on the streets of Fresno.

I didn’t identify him beyond his first name. His name is Mike Knutson. He died nine days after the blog was posted.

Mike died a month shy of his 63rd birthday. From what I gather, he died in a bed in an apartment at 1474 Fresno Street, just two blocks west of Fulton Mall. He apparently went to a friend named Leland who was staying there. Mike said he wasn’t feeling well. Leland was kind enough to give him a place.

Several days later, Mike was gone. I walked by the place (a hotel in its younger days, I think) last Thursday. There was a sign out front with Mike’s name on it. I heard later that dozens of people gathered at the old hotel that night to speak of Mike. Several members of Mike’s family attended.

Mike’s family held a graveside service for him early Friday afternoon at the Lindsay-Strathmore Cemetery, southeast of Lindsay. About 100 people were there. The family after the 30-minute service hosted a luncheon at China’s Alley Mexican restaurant in downtown Lindsay. Many of us were there.

There are two parts to this blog. The second part contains a copy of my remarks at Mike’s funeral and a photo of Mike from his senior yearbook at Lindsay High School.

The first part of this blog is a quick heads up. The administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin begins a historic sweep of downtown homeless camps in a week.

The razing of the sprawling camp on Santa Clara Street across from the Poverello House begins Aug. 26. Next up is the camp at Los Angeles and E in old Germantown on Sept. 3. The last is the camp on H Street south of Ventura on Sept. 9.

Preston Prince, chief executive at the Fresno Housing Authority, estimates there are 4,000 homeless people in Fresno. More than half, he says, are “unsheltered” — they live under bushes or on sidewalks or in makeshift structures. The others struggle from one friend’s couch to anther, sometimes landing under the bushes for a stretch.

There are many schools of thought about Fresno’s homelessness challenge. I give you the Web addresses for my earlier blog and four organizations that take a passionate interest in finding answers.

1.) “Thoughts on a wonderful cabinet-maker” —
2.) Central California Legal Services (Chris Schneider, executive director) —
3.) “Community Alliance” newspaper (Mike Rhodes — editor) —
4.) Fresno First Steps Home (Tom Richards — board chairman) —
5.) Fresno Madera Continuum of Care (Jody Ketcheside, executive committee chair —

I have no sure-fire solutions. I will suggest only this.

The many family members and friends (I exclude myself from this analysis) who attended Mike’s service on Friday are wonderful people. They are hard-working. They are responsible. Many served their country honorably in the military. They care for their families. They show compassion for the less fortunate. They know no one is perfect, including themselves. They are not mean or arrogant or insensitive. They are the best America has to offer.

And they all know that a just public order — a deep-rooted respect for the law and the rights of others — is pivotal to civilization.

My comments at Mike’s Friday service:

I called the Coroner’s Office a couple of days ago about Mike.

Dr. Gopal said Knut was 6 feet tall. He weighed 175 pounds. He died in one of those long-stay hotels in Fresno’s Chinatown.

Knut’s body showed the effects of paramedics trying to revive him. Otherwise, there were no marks.

Dr. Gopal said it was too early for the toxicology report. His best guess on cause of death – cardiac arrest.

Mike Knutson’s heart yielded to earthly events at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 9, 2013.

My aim here is not to tell stories. We all have our tales with Mike. The best are sure to be recalled as the day moves on.

My aim is the mystery. What, dear Lord, happened to Mike?

I don’t have answers except the obvious one of drink. But Mike and I did cross paths in Fresno over the past decade. And I’ll make a guess at what made Mike tick in his final years.

It has to do with geography. Mike and I seemed to always bump into each other in an area of downtown Fresno that makes a triangle.

There’s Santa Clara Street in the south. Then H Street going north to the Belmont underpass. Then Divisadero and C street back to Santa Clara.

I might come across Mike sleeping by the railroad tracks. Or waiting for a bus. Or needing a ride to the recycling center.

And I’d think: Why would Mike choose this small triangle of urban chaos? He could live in the same size area in Lindsay.

The triangle could start here. Go up Foothill to the high-school football stadium. Then cut across town to what used to be Coleman’s Drive-In. Then back to here.

As far as money goes, Mike could have led the same life. And here he would have had the comfort of familiar sights.

There would be the house on Laurel where he and Nancy started their married life and brought two daughters into the world. There would be the Junior High where he once put my bicycle on top of the basketball backboard. There would be that paper shack where he and brother Eric rolled Fresno Bees every Sunday morning.

But Mike chose not to live in Lindsay. Mike’s daughter shined a light on what I think is the reason.

Kim told me she and her sister Tesa and their Aunt Darlene insisted that Mike get a formal funeral.

“He deserves that respect,” Kim said.

Yes, Mike wanted respect. But more importantly, he wanted to be seen by others as worthy of their respect. He wanted respectability. Through all his troubles, I guarantee that gnawed at him. Most of all Mike wanted respectability in the eyes of the society he cherished – that of Lindsay and its people from long ago.

Granted, Mike didn’t always behave in a way that made him worthy. He knew it. Hence, he chose Fresno’s streets rather than Lindsay’s streets.

Mike never lost the capacity for shame. That’s why there was always hope — within him and for him.

Mike called me about a year ago. He said he was doing better. “Hey, Kipper, when’s the next class reunion?” He wanted the Class of ’68 to see he had regained the full measure of respectability he once possessed and, he felt certain, would again be his position in life.

It wasn’t to be.

Mike disappeared from us all too often. It’s not inappropriate for us today to say Mike was wrong. He hurt many. He had no reason and no right to do so.

And because he left us for so many years, we are forced today to look obliquely in our search for the complete man. We need clues.

I suggest the most telling clue is us. A cardinal rule of my business is you can see a lot by looking. We all know each other. Please — take a look at us.

I see Nancy. And Kim and Tesa. And Eric. And Darlene. There’s Art and Dave. And Vickie.

I see excellence. I have no doubt Mike in his heyday and in his memory while walking the streets of Fresno did as well.

We have come here on a warm Lindsay afternoon to pay our respect to a man we hadn’t seen for years, perhaps decades. We do so because, despite everything, we recognize Mike’s fundamental excellence. There was respectability in that man.

The whole idea of democracy is that wisdom is to be found in the people’s collective will. We are right about Knut.

Mike Knutson


Bonnie Christian says:

This shows us that homelessness can happen to ANYONE, not just those who have had nothing all their lives; not just those who have been in trouble all their teen years. The picture is very heart-warming, and he looks like he was a very good person, perhaps a baseball player; perhaps an “A” student in auto mechanics; perhaps worked at the local 7-11 or a fast-food place in his teen years; maybe did yard work for others. Whatever his story, we know it was “Good man gone astray.” Sometimes other people can push us until they force us to take a wrong path. Every heart feels differently about every situation. My heart feels kindness for Knut. I hope that Knut felt love from someone at the time of his death. Thank you for this touching story, Mr. Hostetter.

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