In the struggle, there are often hard working dedicated folks working behind the scenes that are essential to moving issues forward, and they are often women. Longtime Coalition on Homelessness family member Ruth Pleaner was one of those. She passed away this past month and left our community with a gaping hole.
The Coalition on Homelessness is a very grassroots, rough and tumble organization. It was started by a group of homeless folks and frontline service providers 30 years ago, and operates for and by homeless people themselves. Our mission is to end homelessness and halt human rights abuses, while ensuring homeless people are at the forefront of the struggle. Especially in the early days, the office was smoke-filled, dirty-carpeted and boisterous, and folks from all walks of life frequented it. The open-door space welcomed all destitute people into the struggle to end homelessness. People who are constantly dehumanized, mistrusted and vilified. People severely stigmatized and traumatized. The original office was a converted storage closet located at the bottom floor of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Ruth started at the Coalition in the early days of the organization and was the organization’s first bookkeeper. According to founder Paul Boden, she had only one surprising condition—that she be able to bring her child to work with her. That openness on her part instantly relaxed the space as she trusted the same people with her most precious baby. Her first child, Max, and second child, Eli, were embraced and adored by the Tenderloin community, as children often are, especially in impoverished communities. However, Ruth didn’t come from an impoverished background, and as a white, upper-middle class woman, that unspoken trust she had of the many homeless people who shared space, cared for and played with her child spoke volumes about who she was and instantly transmitted value to those around her. It was transformative. Following Ruth, many parents followed suit and brought their own babies and children to work at the Coalition. We call them Coalition kids, and many are still friends with each other today.
Ruth was quiet, funny, kind and committed. She centered the organization with her calm strength. She also had a deep sense of justice. The Coalition has equal salaries for all staff, an important value in the organization that continues to this day. That egalitarian policy was started by Ruth. She was earning a higher salary than everyone else and suggested her work was no more valuable then the next person. Over the years, staff at the Coalition were frequently laid off during funding shortages, and Ruth would continue working without pay. She stayed with the organization for about 15 years, reducing her hours when her children needed her more, and often working as a volunteer. She did so thanklessly and without glory, operating simply from a place of commitment to struggle.
When Ruth was ready to leave, she spend a great deal of time training her predecessor on how to do the work. Later, when founder Paul Boden left the organization to start the Western Regional Advocacy Project, an organization that works to unite homeless organizations across the West Coast to halt human rights abuses and create solutions, Ruth offered her skills to start that organization. In both organizations, Ruth set up accountable bookkeeping systems to ensure the organizational funds were accounted for, bills got paid, personnel records were kept and all the other things critical to running a non-profit. That allowed the rest of the staff to focus on organizing other homeless people to campaign for the city to afford them the very same dignity Ruth carried with her daily.
Ruth, we love you and miss you.