|Richmond's Prather Wins
Jefferson Award for Homeless Advocacy Project
October 8, 2006
As executive director of Fresh Start, Susan Prather reaches out to the homeless people of Contra Costa County, providing meals, clothing, shelter and social services and helping restore and maintain dignity.
Prather founded Fresh Start, based at Fellowship House on Trinity Avenue in Walnut Creek, eight years ago. Fresh Start provides shower and bath access, a laundry facility, breakfast, lunch, clothing and referral services to the homeless and the poor.
"We are very focused on the individual, rather than the cookie-cutter approach," said Prather. "We provide individual services and try and get people what they need in the moment and beyond. We try to keep people warm, healthy and dry while they are living outside, too. People are not clients; everybody who comes to Fresh Start is a participant. There is no 'them' and 'us.' "
Prather first became aware of the Bay Area's homeless problem in the mid-'70s.
"I met a very sweet man who was homeless," Prather said. "I was working for a senior meal program then, and he had nothing. He more or less taught me how to help him: when to hold back, when to move forward and when to help him get to appointments."
Prather began helping people one at a time until the work consumed her life.
"I was always kind of an outlaw,'' she said. "I was not a part of any organization and certainly not a part of a system. I worked closely with Contra Costa Legal Services and on the streets by myself in Richmond, Concord and all over the county.''
Prather said she disagrees with the view that a catastrophic event in someone's life, like an illness, death or divorce, causes homelessness, pointing instead to the lack of good-paying jobs and affordable housing in the Bay Area.
"With all the layoffs, jobs being moved overseas and the state of the global economy, people are hurting at home," she said. "I see more people living in their cars than ever. People are one or two paychecks away from homelessness.
"A lot of people who come to Fresh Start work," Prather added. "Some have two jobs and (still) can't afford housing. Landlords and property management companies require most of the time that people make three times the rent. That's really hard when most jobs are minimum wage or a little more."
When Prather discovered there were homeless people living on the streets of Walnut Creek, despite its affluent reputation, she wrote letters to the City Council and the city manager, who invited Prather to write a proposal for an organization that wouldn't duplicate any services already available.
Fresh Start was set up with a donation of $250,000 willed to the city of Walnut Creek by the late Elizabeth Martin of Rossmoor.
"We ran on the city's money for 2 1/2 years," Prather said. "We turned it into a private nonprofit when the city money ran out. For the last six years, Fresh Start has been in operation without any government funding. We operate on the kindness of strangers."
Fresh Start operates with two paid staff members (Prather is one), and several volunteers -- many are program participants. The building and utilities were donated by St. Paul's Episcopal Church. Food -- fresh produce, eggs, milk, and tea and coffee -- is donated by Safeway and others; clothing and personal care items are donated by Peet's and other organizations. Fresh Start's budget is $180,000 to $200,000 a year; the program serves 70 to 75 people a week.
"We do a lot with a little bit," Prather said. "We lessen the impact of homelessness on the community by providing non-shelter amelioration. When people are living outside, they can get whatever they need at Fresh Start. We have a food pantry. We give away cases of water. The Police Department in Walnut Creek told us that we've have cut down on petty theft because people don't have to steal what (they) need to survive."
Julia Ambrose, who is on Fresh Start's board of directors, has benefited from the program. Ambrose was homeless when she first met Prather several years ago, when Prather was doing outreach for the homeless at a Walnut Creek park. Prather helped Ambrose get into a home in San Ramon.
"Susan is a very caring, responsible person who sees everybody as important," Ambrose said. "She takes time for everyone who comes in the door. She does everything she can to help people. And if she can't, she'll find someone who can. She never leaves anyone hanging."
For information on Fresh Start, call (925) 935-8446 or go to freshstartwc.org.
Each week, The Chronicle features a Bay Area resident who has won a Jefferson Award for making a difference in his or her community. The awards are administered by the American Institute for Public Service, a national foundation that honors community service. Bay Area residents profiled in The Chronicle are also featured on CBS 5-TV and KCBS-AM, which are Jefferson Award media partners, along with The Chronicle.
E-mail Shelah Moody at email@example.com.