To her, every homeless woman was a rose. All Roses.
Many Bostonians knew Kip Tiernan, who died this week at the age of 85, as the founder of Rosie’s Place, the nation’s first shelter for homeless women. However, few know Kip’s key role in helping to start Victory House in the South End for homeless, alcoholic men with nowhere else to turn. As one of the founders of Victory House, Kip helped open a residential alcoholism treatment program dedicated to taking in anyone who wanted help. She helped people everyone else labeled “helpless and hopeless,” especially the most destitute and transient men barred or evicted from more traditional programs — the Vietnam vet with PTSD, the de-institutionalized on psychotropic medication, the homosexual turned away or the chronically homeless alcoholic. In Kip’s presence, no one was ever to call the homeless “helpless and hopeless.” Heaven help you if you did.
I had never met anyone like Kip before. I was an idealistic, energetic 18-year-old college student at Boston College, volunteering after classes at the fledgling Victory House. Kip was disarmingly small and thin, but nothing about her was delicate or fragile. When she spoke, there was no question you were in the presence of a mighty storm of reckoning. One never argued with Kip, even when her opinions were slightly nontraditional, such as: People working in shelters shouldn’t be paid, but rather should work out of love and compassion; or, charities should never take government money.
We listened. We held our tongues. We chose our battles because we knew she was not the one we needed to fight. She had that ineffable aura of a leader, the powerful presence of a visionary and the unforgettable stature of an activist who was actually doing something so tangible and concrete about social injustice.
Kip smoking her cigar. Kip wearing her signature fedora hat or flat cap. Kip and her unmistakable sandpaper voice that could silence any crowd in a snap. None of us had ever met or envisioned an angel so feisty as Kip.
She admired the fact that a clean-cut all American boy was giving up Saturday night college parties to work in a halfway house. Kip inspired me to fight to make a little difference in an indifferent city. She always greeted me with a chuckle and a gravely voiced. “How’s my boy?”
Kip took me on the tour of the South End the tourists never got to see: to the Boston homeless shelter where the only way a homeless woman could get in for a free meal was by disguising herself as a man; to Blackstone Square — called “Needle Park” in those days — home to many homeless; to Boston Detoxification Center on Father Gilday Street, now the site of luxury condos.
Once I heard Kip address a crowd on the grand staircase in the State House. She called for us to be “staunch warriors in the walk toward justice,” to fight against the “mean-spirit of government,” and that “charity is accepting scraps from the table, but justice means being invited to the table.” Our call from her was an empowering invitation. She invited everyone to join in the movement to end oppression.
Kip awed. Kip inspired. Kip sometimes scared. She was a rebel. She was a poet. She was a prophet. She was a pioneer genius radical dreamer and thinker. She was a mesmerizing public speaker and advocate who was the voice of silenced women, telling stories that few wanted to hear because they were often rooted in the most unbearable pain and loneliness. Kip once said, “To eliminate the cause of suffering is our reason for living. By helping the homeless we become free and liberated. Keep on keeping on. Do the best we can, then try to do more.”
Most of all, Kip was my dear friend, mentor and one of the great heroes of our time. I am now in my fifties — hardly the naive college kid I once was. A few years ago I ran into Kip in the South End. She cracked a smile when she saw me and said, “How’s my boy?” I felt like I was 18 years old again.
Kip once described herself as a “prisoner of hope.” Hope was her great gift to me. Hope was the affirmation in her soul. It is her forever lasting legacy to us. “Sometimes, all we need is just plain stubborn hope.” That was pure Kip. Kip and all her roses.
Jonathan D. Scott is president and executive director of Victory Programs Inc.