Channeling our charity. Her own approach, says Boston activist Kip Tiernan, was to move beyond `checkwriting for good causes'

We like to be sensible while we're being generous. Before we give anything away we want to be sure our gift is going to someone who really ``needs'' it. But Kip Tiernan, founder of Rosie's Place, a wonderful and much-praised shelter for homeless women in Boston, gets a little bit steamy if you start talking about what poor people ``need.''

``People have all kinds of needs,'' she says firmly. ``When I started Rosie's Place, I felt that the women needed flowers. We spend 4,000 bucks a year on flowers at Rosie's Place.''

Ms. Tiernan has founded a lot of things. She keeps her ear to the ground - ``Kip is phenomenal in the way she is able to spot a trend,'' says fellow activist Fran Froehlich - and when she sees a need she starts up an organization to deal with it.

In addition to Rosie's, there is the Boston Food Bank, started in the late '70s when ``there was a `heat or eat' crisis,'' she says.

One of five outstanding American women featured in a recent issue of Woman's Day magazine, Kip Tiernan has plunged into her latest project, the Poor People's United Fund, which she founded in 1980 with Ms. Froehlich. The idea is to raise survival money for a number of small worthy groups that had lost their funding, due to shifts in the federal wind. The fund pays for things like stamps, photocopying, rent, and phone. Tiernan likes to describe it as ``a spare change foundation.''

Kip Tiernan has a twinkly face and cropped gray hair, like your grandmother, and dresses in things like a purple bandanna and jeans and a jaunty khaki hat and khaki-green jacket with a little wisp of fur around the hood. She seems so totally a part of what she does as to be a kind of personification of it.

One frozen day last month, Tiernan and Froehlich gathered in the cafeteria at Rosie's with some people from the Boston Food Bank and Project Care and Concern, before heading off to explore a warehouse full of salesmen's samples that a local discount store wanted given to charity. The corporate philanthropy manager was trying to do some unusual things.

``We can put him in immediate contact with immediate groups that take immediate action,'' said Tiernan, emphasizing each ``immediate'' with a little thump on the table.

One of the original things about Rosie's, just moved to these new quarters on Harrison Avenue, is that it is such a classy place. Nothing here is shabby, or secondhand, or rejected-looking. On either side of the door is a squad of nicely mulched young rhododendrons in the very best taste. The cafeteria has big windows and nice furniture. It does not look like your idea of a shelter for the homeless.

``Society tells you what it thinks of you by what housing it gives you. Some guys get a condo and some guys get a cardboard box,'' as Tiernan says in her cheerful, raspy voice.

After hugs all around, a plate of sticky buns and a pitcher of coffee is produced, and everybody sits around talking about how the poor in Boston are doing.

Things sound as if they could be better.

``We do food this year, homelessness next year; it's kind of trendy,'' says Froehlich. ``When groups try to say that people are still hungry, people say `What do you have that's new?'''

Sisters Jean and Joyce, two nuns who help residents at the Columbia Point Housing Project, which happens to have magnificent water views, talk about the fact that much of it is about to be turned into expensive middle-class housing.

Froehlich talks about a meeting with the developer she and Tiernan went to to talk about the needs of the Columbia Point residents, and about the future of the project.

``They didn't like us very well,'' she says, looking down with a slight wrinkle of the nose.

``If anybody went into what we went into to win friends and influence people ... what a sad little expectation,'' says Tiernan.

Everybody bundles up and heads out to various cars, and soon Froehlich is rocketing down the turnpike in her white pickup toward the discount store warehouse, and talking about the Poor People's United Fund.

``What sometimes happens in large institutions is that they take on a life of their own,'' she says.``They tend to be blind to changes. It takes so long for an institution to move that the response time is devastating to the very people they intend to serve. The way around that is to constantly reflect on what the needs really are.''

The charity warehouse turns out to be in an area of low-slung office condos, shopping malls, and parking lots. A slender, bearded, brown-haired man, the corporate philanthropy manager, lets us in. ``You're welcome to case the joint,'' he says.

The room, rather small by warehouse standards, is piled thick and high with columns of mysterious boxes, leaning this way and that. The treasure hunt begins.

``This is fun, huh?'' says Sister Jean, as she stands in a narrow aisle and opens a box containing some super-firm, super-filled, super-sleeping pillows.

``Once in a while a woman gets an apartment and we try to help furnish it,'' says Blaise Flynn, the grounds manager of Rosie's. ``I'd help you do that,'' says the corporate philanthropy manager.

``I'm trying to get an idea of who else to call,'' says Froehlich, looking in a box which proves to be full of steering wheel covers in plastic wrappers. Then she finds some framed line drawings of ducks, tinted brown and orange, that would be nice for some former homeless person's apartment.

``Socks!'' comes a joyful shriek from an explorer on the other side of the room.

I ask Tiernan if she'd always been an activist, and she says she used to be in public relations, advertising, and newspaper work, with her charitable work confined to ``checkwriting for good causes, and a little marching for Martin Luther King.

``I came to the realization that it wasn't enough for me,'' she says. ``My needs weren't being met. If my needs were being met, I'd still live that way.''

The turning point was in 1968, she says, at a liberal political gathering at St. Phillip's Church in Roxbury.

``I said, `I'll call the press; I'll bring them down.'

``The church was filled with an interesting group of people. They were white, they were black, they were suburban; some were very conventional, others very unconventional; and I looked at the crowd and said, `This is where the church should be.'

``And I also said `I've passed through a door and there's no turning back.' And I don't know why I said that.

``Father Jack White [administrator of St. Phillips] said to me, `You could have a lot of fun here in Roxbury. Poor people need your skills but they can't afford them.'''

``Within a year I was living there'' - as a member of the urban team ministry.

She says a life spent dealing with the problems of the poorest, most needy members of society is not in the least depressing.

``A system that denies people their existence brings you down,'' she says. ``The recognition of those problems and ways that you can confront them brings you up.

``Frannie and I also manage to have a lot of fun. We have it on the run to be sure....

``One of the distinctions we continually make is the difference between charity and justice. There's always a string attached to charity, something they have to do to eat, to sleep, whatever. Charity makes you feel good, justice makes everybody feel good.... Some people have become more important than others and we want to know why. We think it's because of the way things are prioritized....''

``I live very close to the edge myself, because I prefer to live that way,'' Tiernan continues. ``I chose poverty. Most people have it chosen for them; there's a vast distinction. There's something very deliberate about that, trying not to be comfortable.''

``I'm very dependent on the people of Roxbury and the people at Rosie's to show me the way. This is a world of newspeak, and smoke-and-mirrors. So we have to do a lot of research. What a federal administration economist might tell us about poverty and what a poor person might tell us ... there's a difference. And the truth is in there, somewhere. One stands with the crucified or the crucifier. There is no middle way....''

``As a country we chose some things over others. We chose things over people, over and over again....''

``I think one of the things we have done at Rosie's is to create a sense of value, where it didn't exist before. We respect the women at Rosie's Place. Poor people don't get an awful lot of respect, like Rodney Dangerfield,'' she says with a short laugh. ``We pay very close attention to the people living there...

``We come as close to being family as those women have ever had.''

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