Metro

Adrian Walker

Advocate’s heart still set on helping homeless

Richard Ring has come a long way since 2009.

At that point, he was practically a tenant of Tufts-New England Medical Center, waiting for a new heart. When I stopped by to talk to him, he casually mentioned that he had been in the hospital for 65 of the previous 73 days — not that he was counting. His decades as one of the city’s foremost advocates for the homeless were on the verge of ending because of a mysterious heart ailment.

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The ironies were many. Ring — once a legendary high school athlete — had always been the picture of health. Now he couldn’t get out of bed. A man known for his heart had suddenly been failed by it.

Not that he was wasting any time feeling sorry for himself; he was just impatient, after spending two months lying around. “I’m not complaining,” he said then. “They’re giving me a second chance at life.”

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He is making the most of that second chance. At 68 — an age when most people are retiring, or hankering to do so — Ring is coming out of retirement. A month ago, he returned to the job he left five years ago, executive director of FamilyAid Boston (formerly known as Travelers Aid).

Ring’s career began at the Pine Street Inn in 1969, back when it was actually located on Pine Street and well before the term “homelessness” came into vogue. He was barely out of college, but was disturbed by the sight of people living on the streets, a problem he viewed as an issue of social justice. He succeeded Paul Sullivan as Pine Street’s director in 1983, and moved to what is now FamilyAid Boston in 2005.

His return comes at a crucial time. The number of families in shelter has risen dramatically, as has the number living in poverty. The state’s system of sheltering families in motels is expensive and inefficient. As we’ve recently seen, the closing of the city’s shelter on Long Island, however necessary, has resulted in chaos. To say the system is broken would be an understatement.

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FamilyAid Boston’s primary role is to provide shelter for homeless families. The agency arranges lodging for families, and also owns apartments that are used for family shelter.

“People say to me, ‘Why are you going back?’ ” Ring said this week. “At the moment, the need is enormous. But it’s also the kind of work where it’s pretty easy to get inspired by the people you work with.”

He said he spent the first two years after his heart transplant simply healing. Since then, he has returned to work gradually. First he worked as a consultant. Two years ago, he joined the FamilyAid board of directors. When the group’s former head, Bruce Liddell, decided to retire this fall, Ring felt well enough to replace him.

Ring noted that the face of homelessness is changing. More families, and more working people, are struggling to keep roofs over their heads, and many of them are losing that battle. “These are people who are working, usually single parent, family-headed households,” Ring said. “The middle class is scrambling like crazy to maintain housing.”

FamilyAid Boston’s major fund-raiser is a reception every December at the Parkman House, and this year’s event is Dec. 10. At the event, attorney and all-around great guy Michael McCormack will receive the second annual Thomas M. Menino Public Service Award, for his support of the organization. The first went to Menino himself last year, and he’d get a kick out of seeing his old friend and City Council colleague become the second recipient.

As for Ring, he says he got into housing out of a passion for social justice and clearly that fire still burns. Retirement was never in his nature. As he put it, “You can only play so much golf.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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