Few constituencies have less political clout than homeless children, whose lot in life Dawn Jahn Moses tirelessly tried to improve over the past 17 years.
Recognizing the prejudice many harbor toward people who lose jobs and homes, she helped turn the focus from adults to children with “America’s Youngest Outcasts: State Report Card on Child Homelessness,” which the National Center on Family Homelessness first issued a few years ago and updated last year.
“It was Dawn’s foresight and vision to say: ‘How do we bring this to people’s attention? We have to package this around the kids,’ ” said Dr. Ellen Bassuk, founder and president of the center, based in Needham, where Ms. Jahn Moses had been a vice president. “Dawn was a warm, compassionate, very smart, politically savvy, personable human being who had just tremendous commitment to social justice issues.”
Ms. Jahn Moses, who was a policy adviser to Tipper Gore during the federal health care overhaul attempt in the 1990s, died June 6 in her Arlington home of cancer that had metastasized by the time she was diagnosed four years ago. She was 46.
“Dawn’s passion and determination to eliminate homelessness inspired and impacted so many,” Gore said in an e-mail. “In each of her public leadership roles, she was masterful at understanding the issues, inspiring people with her passion, and driving towards change.”
Ms. Jahn Moses had a sure grasp of how federal policies get made and was a go-to adviser in the nation’s capital and in Greater Boston as she advocated for those whose voices often go unheard.
As she worked with Gore and others during the health care debate of the 1990s, Ms. Jahn Moses made sure everyone remembered that each dry statistic represented a vulnerable person.
“Dawn loved policy, but she loved people more,” said Skila Harris, who formerly was Tipper Gore’s chief of staff and special assistant to Vice President Al Gore.
“Throughout that period when we were working on health care reform, the thing that sticks in my mind about Dawn is that she always brought us back to who would be served by the mental health and substance abuse coverage that we were crafting. She had a very true moral compass in that she never let us forget who this was for.”
Ms. Jahn Moses also paid close attention to those with whom she worked at government agencies and at the National Center on Family Homelessness.
“She was thorough and was an incredible strategic thinker and had such a commitment to homeless people,” said Katie Volk, who considered Ms. Jahn Moses a mentor at the center, and now works for the Center for Social Innovation. “Beyond that, she wanted to get to know you as a person. Even when she was so ill, she knew exactly what was going on in my family and the different people in my life, and she knew that about everybody.”
The youngest of four children, Dawn Anne Jahn was born in Princeton, N.J., where her father was an aerospace science professor and dean at Princeton University and her mother taught at the University League Nursery School.
She graduated from Princeton High School and went to Princeton University, from which she graduated in 1988 as a history major, with a certificate in women’s studies.
In a freshman Spanish class she met James Moses, whom she had first encountered in nursery school, though neither recalled those early months together. “She had taken four years of Spanish and by all rights should have placed into a higher level,” he said. “I think she stayed up a little too late the night before her placement. We might not have met if not for that little twist of fate because we traveled in different circles. We got lucky.”
They began dating the following year and married in 1994.
Meanwhile, after graduating from college, Ms. Jahn Moses took a job at the National Institute of Mental Health, working on programs for the homeless mentally ill.
She went to the University of Texas, graduating with a master’s in public affairs, and returned to federal government. Along with advising Gore, she worked with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration.
Ms. Jahn Moses, who moved with her husband to Massachusetts in 1995, took great satisfaction in working on policies designed to help the homeless, the mentally ill, and substance abusers.
“She never articulated it, but I think she felt a calling,” her husband said. “She could have done anything. She could have been a great lawyer, she could have been a great banker, but that wasn’t her. She needed to do this work.”
Said Volk: “She doesn’t take credit for things, but in her quiet way, she had a big impact on our field of family homelessness.”
Just as involved with her own family, Ms. Jahn Moses set aside illness to attend the many activities in which her 13-year-old daughter, Georgia, and 9-year-old son, Henry, participated. Despite her diagnosis, Ms. Jahn Moses was so spirited that “I thought to myself: ‘This illness has no idea who it’s met,’ ” Volk said. “She was just so tenacious.”
In addition to her husband, daughter, and son, Ms. Jahn Moses leaves her father, Robert Jahn of Princeton; a brother, Eric Jahn of Princeton; and two sisters, Jill Jahn of Princeton and Nina Gustin of Greenwich, Conn.
Family and friends will gather to celebrate Ms. Moses’ life at 2 p.m. Saturday in Town Hall in Arlington.
“She was an incredibly thoughtful and loving mother and wife,” her husband said. “Georgia and Henry were her pride and joy.”
Though the illness was advanced by the time she was diagnosed, Ms. Jahn Moses “defied all the odds, all the statistics in terms of survival,” he said. “I think she was able to do it because she wanted to be around as long as she could for the kids.”
can be reached at