Local homeless advocate Frances Townes dies at 101, remembered for energy and activism

Sylvan Lumsden/Courtesy

Frances Hildreth Townes, renowned Berkeley community member, advocate for the homeless and devoted wife to the late scientist Charles Townes, died in her sleep Feb. 5. She was 101.

Frances Townes grew up in Berlin, New Hampshire, where her father and uncles owned the Brown Company, a paper mill. The family was well-off until it lost most of its money in the Great Depression, an experience that greatly contributed to her charitable attitude, according to her daughter Holly Townes.

“Knowing that there is vulnerability in life — that your station can change — made her empathetic for groups like the homeless,” Holly Townes said.

Frances Townes’ activism began soon after she moved to Berkeley in 1967, when she discovered UC Berkeley did not allow part-time students, meaning the wives of faculty members were not permitted to take classes. She worked with the campus and the Young Women’s Christian Association to successfully overturn the policy, according to Holly Townes.

Frances Townes also quickly made an impact at her church, the First Congregational Church of Berkeley.

“She was a ‘connector’; she would make a point of connecting, sharing her love,” said Phil Porter, fellow member of the church, who said he became close with Frances Townes after she was assigned by the church to help him adjust to Berkeley after his move here in the mid-1970s.

Frances Townes’ most notable work, however, came with Berkeley’s homeless population. She helped found the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless, an organization which brings together local religious leaders to provide the homeless with food and shelter.

Youth Spirit Artworks — a center for homeless youth that provides an art studio where kids can make art and sell it — helped build a mural in her honor, according to Wesley Wright, one of the mural’s primary creators.

“Her husband had a monument, and it seemed fitting to us to have a (monument) for her as well, because while her set of accomplishments was different, they were very important for the community,” Wright said.

Frances Townes’ relationship with Berkeley’s homeless went beyond typical volunteering.

“I remember walking along streets of Berkeley with her, and she knew all of the homeless people on the street,” Holly Townes said. “It was incredible. She would just go up and hug them.”

Frances Townes was such an effective advocate for the homeless, according to City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, because of her ability to talk about difficult issues in a calm, nonpolitical way. She was able to come off as “eminently reasonable,” and her arguments “didn’t sound like political rhetoric.”

Berkeley honors Frances Townes Day on Feb. 13, which was established by the Berkeley City Council in 2016 in honor of her accomplishments.

“Indisputably, she’s done so much she deserves a day, probably more than that,” Worthington said.

Contact Luke Kopetsky at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @LukeKopetsky.