The only homeless services program in Walnut Creek is in jeopardy.
But a group of dedicated volunteers, backed by a local church, are coming together to keep a version of Fresh Start open -- though likely under a different name -- and help the homeless.
Fresh Start is a respite and service center where homeless people, or those at risk of becoming homeless, can take showers, eat, get medical help and clothes, make phone calls and simply hang out.
One of the original founders and executive director of Fresh Start, Bill Lunghi, 75, will be retiring, along with his wife Robin, 66, from their unpaid positions at the end of October. Their imminent departure created a shake-up at first, with church leaders and community members worried it would cause the program to shutdown completely.
Lunghi and his first wife, Susan Prather, began Fresh Start in 1999. Prather was a dedicated advocate for the homeless until she died of cancer in 2008. Without Prather and now the Lunghis to run the organization, Fresh Start as it operates now will not continue. Instead, St. Paul's Episcopal Church -- which has housed the organization in its fellowship hall for more than 10 years -- is in the process of taking over running the day-to-day operations of the program.
"It is not a ministry we can let die," said the Rev. Sylvia Vasquez of St. Paul's in an email. "Not serving the poor in this way would be a great loss to our spiritual lives."
The church's governing board will in two weeks hold a formal vote on taking over the program, but Vasquez is confident the organization will continue with the church's backing starting Nov. 1, she said.
The working new title for Fresh Start is Trinity Center, though a new board of directors and separate nonprofit organization will be established apart from the church. No matter what it's called, it will have the same hours and operation as Fresh Start, she said.
The "suddenness" of Lunghi's decision to close Fresh Start, first alerting supporters in a letter earlier this month, left the church and volunteers scrambling to step in. The church had no excess money to allocate, Vasquez said.
But Bill Lunghi says his and his wife's decision to retire was talked about at a board meeting earlier this year and that a member of the church's congregation sits on the board. After telling Vasquez directly in August of their retirement, Lunghi said he prepared a report on what it would take to run Fresh Start.
"This served to awaken many as to what Fresh Start does," Lunghi said in an e-mail late Friday. "The primary point revealed by this report is that an organization similar to Fresh Start can continue only with uncompensated leadership. In this regard, Fresh Start could not have existed since 2008 without uncompensated leadership, and without periodic advances from my meager retirement account."
Funding, always a challenge at Fresh Start, has been even more difficult over the past few years, said Joanne Lagerstrom, a Fresh Start board member. The bad economy coupled with a loss of funding from an annual KGO Thanksgiving charity drive has hurt the nonprofit. The radio station's fundraiser went from providing Fresh Start with $100,000 years ago to less than half that in recent years, Lagerstrom said.
According to the organization's 2011 tax return, which covers 2010-11 fiscal year, the total in monetary contributions Fresh Start received was just over $100,000. That same return shows that in 2007, contributions totaled $212,000.
Fresh Start is open two days a week, and about 60 people come by per day, Lunghi said.
The number of participants has grown while contributions have shrunk, Lagerstrom said. Operated exclusively by volunteers -- some of them homeless themselves -- the center, with just a shower and set of clean clothes, gives the people it serves dignity, she said.
"Many come in and say they have a home two days a week; how can you not be a part of that?" Lagerstrom said.
Former Mayor Sue Rainey was involved with Fresh Start in the beginning and served on the board. She and others are going to organizations such as Rotary Clubs trying to drum up money.
"We want to make sure the clientele can keep going there and there won't be an interruption in service," she said.
A friend of Prather's, Rainey recalled how years ago the police tallied the number of homeless in Walnut Creek around 14, and that Prather went out into homeless camps and found 40.
It's important to have help for the homeless in Walnut Creek because "they are here," said Rainey, who along with Lagerstrom said people are already stepping up to help make sure Fresh Start services continue.
Fresh Start started with a donation of $250,000, willed to Walnut Creek by a Rossmoor woman who wanted to help the homeless. Prather initially reached out to the homeless from a park bench, before St. Paul's Episcopal Church offered free space for the program.
Anyone who wishes to contribute to the new organization can send a check to St. Paul's with "Trinity Center" in the memo. Mail checks to 1924 Trinity Avenue, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.
Contact Elisabeth Nardi at 925-952-2617. Follow her at Twitter.com/enardi10.