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Kip Tiernan built institutions, hope for those at the margins

On Sat., Sept. 10, the sanctuary and balcony at Old South Church downtown was packed for the memorial service for Kip Tiernan. Homeless women, dedicated volunteers at social service agencies, Mayor Menino, and longtime community leaders like Mel King were all there out of respect for Kip, who died on July 2 at age 85.

Kip founded Rosie’s Place, the first homeless shelter in the country focused on homeless women. It’s a magnificent institution dedicated to supporting women in their hard times and helping them survive day to day with some dignity and respect and to move on to more stable and hopeful lives. And she played key roles in founding the Boston Food Bank, Boston Health Care for the Homeless, Community Works, Aid to Incarcerated Mothers, Finex House, Food for Free, John Leary House, My Sister’s Place, Transition House, the Greater Boston Union of the Homeless, Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission and Victory House. This is not a short list of important institutions at work for those who are hurting.

“Only” 12 people were on the program at the service to give testimonies to Kip’s life, let alone several original musical tributes. You know, we can’t sit there all day!!

Mayor Menino recalled that when he was a city councillor in the 1980s (he’s actually really not been our mayor his entire life!), he volunteered to make sandwiches at the shelter. Kip leaned over his shoulder and said, “Put some more meat in those sandwiches, Tommy.” The wonderful youth agency director, Molly Baldwin of ROCA, recounted how Kip was her mentor when she was working with women in prison.

So many of the testimonies mentioned Kip’s burning questions about “who benefits” and who doesn’t from policies that perpetuate poverty or make it worse. Kip was feisty about injustices because it was a common sense as well as a moral question to her. How many times was she speaking up at the State House, City Hall, at the shelters, in the streets? The memorial service program had a picture of the trademark skate key and cross that Kip always wore and we remember the canvass hat and work pants that made up her uniform as she crusaded for so many causes.

Kip was not just an anti-poverty warrior. She had worked in business and public relations into her forties before she decided to focus her life on that vast group of people we know as the unfortunates. At the service, we learned about Kip’s musical abilities, the play she wrote, and her appreciation of all of this.

Several recalled how Kip would recount that the grandmother who raised her during the Depression had her home marked with an X by the homeless. This meant it was a place where people could knock on the door and get a meal when they were in need. Kip remembered that lesson a thousand-fold.

And Kip was not alone in this work; people like Fran Froelich and Georgia Mattison were among Kip’s “partners in hope” in the campaigns she ran from their group called the Poor People’s United Fund.

She lived a big life and created lasting help for the poor, showing us prophetic anger and some real joy. She leaves behind a better city because of her life, so we should pause to thank her and hope we can do a little more for those in need. Or Kip might be leaning down from up above saying, “How about a lot more?”

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident and a longtime community organizer in Boston’s neighborhoods.