The November 2006 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

A Day to End Poverty

Death Behind a Dumpster

Rebirth of Union Power

Threats, Lies and Videotape

Frances Townes Dedication to Justice

Bob's Blankets

Legal Victory for Fresno Homeless

Suitcase Clinic in Berkeley

Susan Prather Receives the Jefferson Award

Santa Cruz Merchant Abuses Homeless Man

Economy Booms for Billionaires

Unions Are the Solution to Our Unjust Economy

Russians Who Work with Homeless Youth

Jack the Ripper: First Serial Killer of Street People

Right to Exist

Poor Leonard's Almanack


October 2006

September 2006

July 2006

June 2006

May 2006

April 2006

March 2006

February 2006

January 2006

November 2005

October 2005

September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

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The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Frances Townes' Long-Lasting Dedication to Social Justice

by Lydia Gans

Frances Townes enjoys a sunny day in People's Park in Berkeley. Lydia Gans photo

Berkeley resident Frances Townes says she sometimes feels like Sisyphus, the character in ancient Greek legend who was doomed forever to keep pushing a great rock up a mountain, only to have it roll back down again. For years, Townes has been trying to find a permanent home for a year-round shelter for homeless young people. There have been many "almosts" along the way; and, at age 90, she still hasn't given up hope.

While providing shelter for homeless people has been the focus of her energy for the last 20 years, she has many and various accomplishments to her credit. Even before Townes moved to Berkeley in 1967, her life was not exactly ordinary. She had a broad education, spent time in Europe, and became fluent in several languages which led to some interesting jobs, including running programs at International House in New York.

Frances married Charles Townes, a physicist, and they had four daughters. In 1964, he was awarded the Nobel Prize, certainly a life-changing event. He was a famous person with an important university position, and she was acting the proper university wife. But she also taught English to foreign students at Columbia University and organized career programs for faculty women at MIT in Cambridge.

"The feminist movement was coming," she recalled. "I knew Betty Friedan." A need for change was stirring in her mind.

Her husband was offered a position at U.C. Berkeley and she was ready for the move to a new coast. She said, "I was sick and tired of silver and crystal and tea and Haa-vard (she says it with the exaggerated long aa) and everything that went with it."

Coming to Berkeley, she remembers, "I fell in love with the place." That was in 1967. Her husband had been invited by Clark Kerr, but when they arrived here, Kerr had been fired. It was the time of protest and the Free Speech Movement.

Frances was invited to become a member of the board of the University Y and "the first job I had was they were dropping tear gas on the students and I was wiping tear gas out of the students' eyes."

She was ready to take another step. Two of her daughters were studying for a Ph.D. and she wanted to go back to school. "I thought, now this is my time. So I went to the college and they said I was too old! 52. Fifty was the limit. I made such a fuss that the chancellor put me on a committee. I've done a lot of innovative things here."

The University of California eventually developed a women's studies center. "Now you can go any time and the policy of continuing education at any age has spread everywhere," Frances said. "But it was too late for me."

Not being a person to sit and wait for the world to come to her, she pursued her interest in nature, an interest she shared with her husband. She joined the Audubon Society and "of all miracles, the Oakland Museum was opening and they were looking for docents who had interest in nature. They invited Audubon people to be docents."

With her boundless energy and talent as a leader, she soon was elected head of the docent council and was a representative on a national level. It was a totally new experience. Frances said, "I distanced myself from Cal and my husband and children; and when I was a docent, nobody knew that I was anybody but Fran Townes. It was just such a liberating experience."

It was also a heartening experience to get Oakland's inner-city children excited about nature. She did that for 20 years until hip surgery forced her to find a less physically demanding activity. She was 70 years old.

At this point, being aware and concerned about people struggling with poverty, Frances Townes hooked up with BOSS Executive Director boona cheema, who was working with "damaged people who had all these needs, health needs, housing needs, and I got to know how to get what and where for them. But it was just not inclusive enough."

She described the steps leading to the formation of the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless.

"The homeless were in the streets," she said. "In the winter, they found shelter in the cloister at our church, the Congregational Church. They were sleeping there in the rain, defecating and drinking. Wendy Georges was working across the street. I got Wendy to come over in the morning to try to get them out before church. But it didn't work. So, finally, the church had them all thrown out by the police. Then the church got a little bit of a conscience and decided that, as Christians, they ought to do something. So they formed a committee. I was asked to join and I ended up heading the committee."

The committee formed an organization which became the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless. The Chaplaincy brought together representatives from many different faiths and congregations in a common effort to help the homeless community. It was led, over the years, by a series of chaplains; and, in periods between chaplains, Frances would be the one to fill in. The Chaplaincy carried out all sorts of projects; but the main issue was securing a place to provide food, shelter and other needed services.

"We kept thinking we'd have a bigger place," she said, "and it was (always) just beyond our reach." They had found early on that the problems of the homeless population they were trying to serve were so overwhelming, that they decided to concentrate on working with young people, ages 15 to 18. She explained, "We felt these young people were people who still had potential.... We thought if we could keep these kids out of prison so they wouldn't learn all the tricks, then that would be a great ministry."

The Chaplaincy to the Homeless has been the focus of Frances Townes' energy for the past 20 years. "Most all of these kids had some kind of problems," she said. "They just needed much more care."

There have been five chaplains over the years, all dedicated to the mission of the Chaplaincy. "Alexia Bowley was the first," Frances recalled. "She was a charismatic and dedicated Lutheran minister of Jewish parents who had worked in the Philippines." Another chaplain, she said, was Sally Hindman, "a Quaker who assembled a fine staff and brought art involvement and outreach to a new level."

The problem, and this is hardly a surprise, was raising the money needed to accomplish the Chaplaincy's goals. "All the time it was a struggle to get money," Frances said. "It's very hard to sell these people; they're the rejects. I felt we were helping the community. We could keep them off the streets during the day when the shoppers were there.... Take them in and feed them and keep them from going to prison and getting to be more of a burden to themselves and the community. We felt that this was a real ministry."

But even the churches would not give them a permanent space -- or when they did, it was expensive and they were eventually always turned out. For a while, they were at First Congregational Church, and then at the Lutheran Chapel on College. Once, the Chaplaincy almost got a house. At one point, they had money from HUD, but those funds had strings attached, and the funding has recently been withdrawn.

Several years ago, the Chaplaincy connected with Sharon Leyden, a social worker, and they formed YEAH (Youth Emergency Assistance Hostels). Pastor Sarah Isakson of the Lutheran Church on University allowed them to run a shelter for homeless youth on rainy winter nights.

At the age of 90, Frances Townes continues to advocate for a full-time, year-round, professionally staffed center for homeless youth. She says she has always been a cheerful person, but "it's been hard, very hard, to see something that we felt was on the verge of being something great." However, she is not giving up.

She is in the process of writing her memoir. In a letter she sent to the UCB chancellor and the Berkeley mayor, she wrote poignantly, "This memoir could have a closing chapter that would describe the fulfillment of my hopes and dreams for the betterment of the damaged homeless youth living on the streets of Berkeley."

Respected by academics and politicians, loved by young people living on the edge, admired by the many people who benefited from her work as an educator and an advocate for women, she sends out a plea to the community. It is time for the community to respond to her dream of a sanctuary for homeless youth.

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