Kip Tiernan: providing love, support to the homeless

Eighteen years ago, Kip Tiernan decided to become a good-doer instead of a do-gooder. Not content with writing charity checks, she left her work in the advertising-publicity field to help homeless and hungry people in Boston. Since then, her spirited and persistent efforts have aided countless dispossessed and desperate people whose needs are greater now than ever before.

''What began as a crisis nine years ago is a fact of life today,'' says Ms. Tiernan, leaning forward across her cluttered desk. ''You have to look hard at the harsh economics that play into this. In the past people could write off the problem by saying, '(The street people) like to be there,' denying them their humanity. Now you have to say, 'There is no longer affordable housing.' ''

The demographics of homeless people across the country are changing. The groups are no longer confined to the elderly, the alcoholic, the emotionally disturbed, or the teen-age runaway. The numbers of homeless women have increased , including single mothers with children. Layoffs have sent a new wave of poor individuals and families into the streets who cannot afford the mortgage or rent payment.

''When we assess the street scene today, the components we must take into consideration are high unemployment, inflation, deinstitutionalization, and the displacement of people from their homes due to the gentrification of cities,'' explains Ms. Tiernan.

''The answer is every bit as complex as the question itself. We have to make some serious economic and moral choices. The situation has gone over the line of charity and has become a question of justice.''

As an educational process, Ms. Tiernan gives talks and lectures to alert people to the pressing needs of the homeless. ''I truly believe we are accountable for each other. Every person has fundamental rights - the right to a job, the right to have food and shelter. Those of us who are part of the human family should be aware of those rights,'' and of our collective responsibilities , she says.

With a rakish felt hat perched on her head and a gift for listening, ''Kippy'' has won the hearts of the disadvantaged people she works with and has found personal fulfillment herself. ''I love what I'm doing - every sometimes grisly moment of it,'' she says, revealing the tenacious grit beneath her disarming smile.

Her intense commitment is tempered by a warm sense of humor and few illusions about herself. ''You can take the issue seriously, but you can't take yourself seriously,'' she says. Still, her efforts are fueled by enthusiasm and a clear purpose. ''I live my life very simplistically. Either it's fair or it's unfair - either it's just or it's unjust.''

When she sees an unjust situation, Ms. Tiernan takes creative action to improve it. She has found that the philanthropic community and the larger government social services are not always sufficient or quick enough to meet the needs of the times. To help fill the gaps, she has established independent institutions and projects funded solely by individual donations to aid the disadvantaged.

Nine years ago, Ms. Tiernan founded a shelter for homeless women in Boston at a time when they had no other place to go. She named it ''Rosie's Place'' to give the image of a comfortable, homey place to seek food, companionship, and a clean bed rather than a demeaning last resort.

''We started out with nothing,'' recalls Ms. Tiernan, ''but I wanted flowers, music, and pictures on the walls. I think poor people need these things to remind them of their humanity.'' Rosie's also serves ''incredible food'' to approximately 125 women per day, she boasts. ''I think poor people deserve the best.''

She describes Rosie's as ''a community of women welded together. One of the great things we provide is an environment for socialization. There are plenty of women in the suburbs who would give their eye teeth for what we have at Rosies.'' Some suburban women who have been deserted or who are divorced have, in fact, found their way to Rosie's.

The shelter seeks to provide an atmosphere where the women can feel valued; where they can love and be loved. ''There is a wonderful reciprocity that can occur,'' says Ms. Tiernan. ''These women can give, they have dreams they have strengths, they care.''

Rosie's Place, which will soon have about 22 beds, is run by five paid staff and 115 volunteers. Rather than expand the present shelter into a large facility , their dream is to establish several small shelters to accommodate about six women at a time with two staff members.

As another successful project, Ms. Tiernan started the Boston Food Bank in 1979 to help feed the hungry in the Bay state. The food bank collects food from individuals, church and social action groups, and oversupplies from supermarkets , food manufacturers, and food suppliers. The food bank then distributes it to a network of 400 direct-service emergency food agencies which donate 9 cents on the pound for the food.

The Poor People's United Fund is Ms. Tiernan's most recent venture. She and co-director Fran Froehlich work to provide at least minimal funding from private donations for eight human-service organizations in the Boston area.

Once Ms. Tiernan gets a project off the ground, she finds committed people to take charge and run it so she can move onto something else. She sees these projects not as final answers, but as steps along the way: ''We need to provide the band-aids, but we also need to assess and confront the root causes,'' she says emphatically.

When faced with discouragement, she gains a great sense of support from the disadvantaged people whom she helps and befriends.

''The great lesson I've learned is just because I'm there doesn't mean the situation is going to change a lot - but it's OK, we'll work it out. I've learned that from really poor, wise people, and it's a good lesson to learn,'' she says. ''It gives me a way of dealing with the fury and frustration. If they have hope where they are, who am I not to have it?''

She cocks her head, her voice full of feeling. ''I can live for those tiny victories when we can say, 'We did it.' Those fragile moments are moments of grandeur.''

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