Berkeley homeless activist Frances Townes celebrates her 100th birthday and a day named in her honor

Frances Townes blows out the candles on her birthday cake. Townes turned 100 and Berkeley named Feb. 13 Frances Townes Day in honor of her community involvement.
Frances Townes blows out the candles on her birthday cake. Sally Hindman, director of Youth Spirit Artworks, is at her left. Photo: Kathleen Costanza

At age 70, most people are looking forward to retiring, traveling, or enjoying a slower pace of life. When Frances Townes reached that milestone, she founded the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless and opened a new chapter in what continues to be a life of activism and advocacy for people who are homeless in Berkeley.

Thirty years later, dozens of people packed into the First Congregational Church in Berkeley on Feb. 13 to celebrate Towne’s 100th birthday, as well as the first-ever official Frances Townes Day in the City of Berkeley. Friends, family, and community members shared memories from different chapters of Townes’ life of social justice work, as Townes laughed and listened alongside on stage. And, fittingly for a life of 10 decades devoted to helping people, her 100th birthday party doubled as fundraiser and silent auction for Youth Spirit Artworks, an arts and job training program for homeless and low-income youth.

“With more activists like Frances, we’d have a stronger, more stable Berkeley,” said Angel Peréz, a senior artist and print-tech at Youth Spirit Artworks, adding that he was inspired by Towne’s determination in her activism throughout her life — even at difficult times.

Frances Townes looking at some of the art work created by Youth Spirit Artworks artists. Photo:
Frances Townes looking at some of the artwork created by Youth Spirit Artworks artists. Photo: Kathleen Costanza

The proceeds from the funds raised at the party will go towards the Frances H. Townes Mural and Bench, a mosaic mural that will be created by artist Wesley Wright and youth from YSA. The mural is planned for the front wall of Youth Spirit Artworks on Alcatraz Avenue in South Berkeley.


Townes was born in Berlin, New Hampshire to a wealthy family who lost much of what they had during the Great Depression. That gave Townes an “understanding of how fragile life can be,” said Holly, the youngest of her four daughters.

In 1941, she married UC Berkeley professor Charles Townes, who passed away in early 2015 at age 99. Charles Townes was a renowned physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 for discovering the principles behind what we now know as the laser. After living in Cambridge, Massachusetts while Charles taught at MIT, the family moved to Berkeley in 1967. Frances became deeply involved in the community. She taught English to immigrant women, advocated for more adult classes at UC Berkeley, and became a volunteer docent at the Oakland Museum. She also chronicled her efforts in her autobiography, Misadventures of a Scientist’s Wife.

Charles and Frances Townes. Photo: courtesy Sylvan Lumsden
Charles and Frances Townes. Photo: courtesy Sylvan Lumsden

“When I met her, I recognized Frances had a deep commitment to [the community,] but it wasn’t with words, it was with actions,” former UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said at the party.

Around the time she turned 70, Townes grew increasingly dismayed at the lack of supportive services for homeless people who were sleeping on church property. She founded the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless to bring Berkeley’s churches and religious leaders together to provide meals, shelter, and other services to homeless people.

Bonnie Bell, former chair of the Chaplaincy, said Townes was “tireless” in her efforts, working one-on-one with young homeless people to help them find housing, or recruiting more volunteers to help with meal services. The organization stopped operating in the early 2000s after 18 years due to funding struggles, but Bell said its legacy carries on in some of the services Berkeley’s churches still offer, as well as the various programs that spun out of the Chaplaincy’s work, including Youth Spirit Artworks.

Bell said what sticks out about Townes is how she seems to be relatable to people from all walks of life, from homeless teenagers to clergy members to prominent Berkeley politicians.

“Everybody in that room knows the same Frances,” Bell said, reflecting on the party.


There was a table full of old photos and articles about Townes' achievements at her 100th birthday celebration. Photo: Sylvan Lumsden
A table full of old photos and articles about Townes’ achievements at her 100th birthday celebration. Photo: Kathleen Costanza

Her friends and family also say Townes has the unique gift of making her voice and opinion heard wherever she goes. This was especially true at city council meetings, where Townes repeatedly spoke against measures like the 2012 “no sitting” ordinance that she saw as criminalizing homelessness. (Voters defeated Measure S that November.) Councilman Kriss Worthington said Townes’ remarks to council were always filled with a mix of facts and emotion, and her words and experiences influenced many close votes over the years. Worthington put forward the measure to make February 13 officially Frances Townes Day.

After blowing out many, many at candles on a giant birthday cake, Townes bought a painting of two swirling fish that had been created by one of the young people from Youth Spirit Artworks and put up for the silent auction. At age 100, she’s still actively engaged trying to make Berkeley a better place for all. But her advice for a younger generation who wants to work towards a more just world?

“They shouldn’t let all that’s happening in politics now frighten them,” she said. “They must be open to the needs of everybody.”

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