DENVER — It’s a typical day in one of Denver’s toughest neighborhoods, with Jay Gould serving food and waiting on the poorest of the poor in a giant tent.

Behind the tent, erected in the backyard of the Franciscan Friends of the Poor, weathered homeless men and women warm themselves by a campfire, preparing to survive another freezing night on the streets.

Some are the poor who won’t get sober, and therefore can’t find warmth even at the city’s homeless shelters or drunk-tanks. A few are mentally ill. Others are homeless children, living on the streets with their parents. They roam with shopping carts, sleeping on steam grates and sometimes eating from trash cans.

Gould is an unlikely servant of the poor. A self-made multimillionaire, he could have done almost anything after his wife, Sheila, died of cancer in 2002.

Rather than indulge, Gould, now in his 70s, chose poverty after a career as a property manager and executive with a department-store chain. He gave his money away, mostly to his seven children.

Today, a year and a half later, he and two other men — Baldemar Garza and John Patrick Stapleton — comprise the Franciscan Friends of the Poor. They hope to grow the organization into a religious order recognized by the Vatican. Gould and the other would-be friars are working with Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, himself a Franciscan, to someday become Franciscan brothers.

“The archbishop has been very supportive,” Gould said. “He tells us for now to just keep doing what we’re doing, and he’ll help us with the rest as we go.”

Gould is up at 6 each morning to embark upon a ministry that involves prayer, daily Mass and the rosary, and finding food and donations to feed about 70 men and women who’ve fallen through the cracks. He offers haircuts to beggars who’ve let their hair go for years. He washes their clothes. Most are dirty, smelly and sometimes thankless. Others are women and children from the neighborhood who have homes but simply can’t afford food.

“Jay Gould is a gift from heaven,” says Thomas McCaffrey, a Denver corporate attorney who helped launch Franciscan Friends of the Poor ( in 1998.

There was a time when Gould never thought much about the poor. That all changed six years ago at Mass one afternoon. That day, a priest gave everyone plastic crucifixes that opened and closed.

“You were supposed to pick out a passage from the Bible that really meant something to you, write it down and place it inside the crucifix,” Gould said. “My wife and I chose Matthew 23:35, which says ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me.’ And that became sort of what we lived by.”

The couple began exploring ways they could donate money and time.

“But until I came down here, I had no real idea the poverty that exists in this city, and probably most big cities,” said Gould, a native of the Bronx, N.Y. “We never came down in these kinds of neighborhoods, so we really didn’t know what poverty was.”

For nearly two years, Gould was a quiet and unknown servant. That changed in November, when he was a guest on “Your World with Neil Cavuto” on Fox News. His appearance resulted in newspaper and television coverage of his story throughout Denver. His witness inspired a variety of donations, big and small, including the anonymous delivery of a box that contained $20,000 in cash just days before Christmas.

What means more to Gould than the much-needed donations, however, is the fact that press coverage helped two women from another state find their long-lost father — a homeless man named Mike Mares. He appeared on one of several newscasts about the organization, and someone recognized Mares and told his daughters where he eats lunch. Both women immediately wrote to Mares in care of the Franciscan Friends of the Poor.

One daughter, a college student, wrote: “Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad! Dad! I’ve been waiting to say that for 17 years. … I have gone my whole life wondering who you are, and crying at night, because you were kept from me.”

“It breaks my heart,” said Mares, 50, known on the streets as “Vodka Mike.” He plans on writing to both daughters.

Mares said he was thrown out of the house when his youngest daughter was born because he was beating his wife. He has been homeless ever since. Today, he chooses a life of drunkenness and sleeps on a loading dock. Everything he owns — four sleeping bags and a few packs of cigarettes — is kept in a shopping cart he stole. He rejects homeless shelters because they insist on taking his cart.

“Jay Gould’s a tough guy, but he has done a lot to help me,” Mares said. “I’ve eaten out of dumpsters for 17 years, and that’s not so bad. Now I get one good meal a day, and they don’t try to control my life. I have a pretty good life, but the warm food makes it better.”

Wayne Laugesen writes

from Boulder, Colorado.