Casa de Clarke, a new program in Highland Park to help homeless people move from the street into housing in six months’ time, was originally called “Casa de Caridad.” But last April, the first group of 10 people enrolled in the program noticed that CDC, the shorthand for Casa de Caridad, could also stand for Casa de Clarke – and the name stuck, no matter how much Father Clarke Prescott, a co-founder of the program, might wish it otherwise.
The name has stuck because it is exactly right. Father Clarke Prescott is the Head Priest in Charge of All Saints Episcopal Church in Highland Park. He is the man who said, simply, “Yes,” on a day back in 2015 when a woman from a nonprofit organization called and asked if he would be willing to let the church be used as an overnight winter shelter for homeless people who were in danger that year of being swept away in El Niño rains.
“When I said yes, there was a long pause,” said Father Prescott, in a recent interview with the Boulevard Sentinel. “She had been told ‘no’ so many times, I guess she was in shock.”
The woman was Rebecca Prine, a tireless advocate for homeless people in Northeast Los Angeles and the founder and executive director of the local nonprofit, Recycled Resources for the Homeless (RRH). News spread quickly of the homeless shelter in the church, where women slept in pews on one side, men on the other, where dinner was prepared and served by volunteers, where it was possible, for the night, to be safe and warm and cared for.
The Winter Shelter at All Saints operated each winter through 2017. It will not open again this year, said Father Clarke, because the regulatory burden of running a large-scale shelter out of a church has become too great.
But it would never have happened at all were it not for Father Clarke saying “Yes” that day in 2015. And if the NELA Winter Shelter had not happened, there would be no Casa de Clarke now. Father Clarke does not need regulatory approval to shelter 10 people at a time in the church and on church property. So he and Ms. Prine and the staff and volunteers of RRH are doing just that. Casa de Clarke provides three months of crisis shelter and three months of bridge shelter to a group of 10 homeless people. Over the course of six months, the participants move from taking on basic responsibilities to actively seeking employment and housing.
The aim is for each person to prepare to find a permanent home and reach their goal within six months.
Father Clarke’s adult life story is one episode after another of personal, direct and unquestioning outreach to help others. He was born in 1943 and grew up in Long Island, NY. His mother was Baptist and his father, Catholic, and “they met in the middle” on religion he said. He refers to himself as a “cradle Episcopalian.”
Although he considered church as just a Sunday ritual when he was young, that began to change in 1966, when he visited a friend who was working as a missionary in Costa Rica. He went into a church and saw a day care center operating there, allowing the mothers to work and improve their lives. He realized for the first time that the church could be a transformational force in people’s daily lives.
Over the next several years, he graduated from college with a break in the middle of his studies to serve in the Army, and then entered the Episcopal seminary at Bexley Hall in Rochester, NY. He earned his Master’s of Divinity and was ordained in 1972.
After working in various assignments, from Rochester, NY to Costa Rica to North Carolina, and struggling to earn enough to support himself and his wife and two children, a friend recommended that he become a chaplain in the Navy, where he would be an officer, earn more money and see the world.
There was travel and financial security, a mix of routine and excitement. But of all the places he visited and situations he encountered, among the most significant was the year he spent counseling patients and grieving families at the Naval Hospital in San Diego, where he was assigned to neo-natal intensive care unit, the intensive care unit and the HIV-evaluation unit. “It was the middle of the AIDS epidemic, and I was counseling young men with HIV that had barely learned how to live, let alone how to die. It changed me.”
To hear him describe it, the change was to be even more open to those who others may view as different, more willing to minister, to help.
He was downsized out of the military in 1993, and went to work at All Saints Episcopal Church in Riverside, where homelessness was worsening. He knew that homeless people could be sheltered in a church, with the pews used as beds. He started a church shelter, but the local authorities quickly shut it down.
But the idea never left him.
After nine years in Riverside, he retired for the first time in 2005, moving to the San Juan Island in the Pacific Northwest for the sheer beauty of it. But work kept beckoning him back, first to Riverside and then as Vicar for churches in Menifee and Lake Elsinore.
Retired again in 2014 at age 71, he got a call one day from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, asking if he would cover Sunday mass for the priest at All Saints in Highland Park.
“I said, ‘sure, where’s Highland Park?’” he recalled. “Two days later, they had called me again and said the priest was on a medical retirement and asked if I would take over the parish.”
And that is how he came to be in just the right place when Rebecca Prine called in 2015.
Of the first group of 10 homeless people who have been through the program this year at Casa de Clarke, six are now living in their own apartments with the help of Section 8 vouchers. Two have gone back to the streets, one moved into another shelter. And one remains for the time being at Casa de Clarke.
Preparations are underway for the next group of 10, who will get started by the end of the year.
“I know I can’t fix the homelessness epidemic in Los Angeles,” said Father Clarke. “But if I can help just one person, then I know I am doing something good.”