Metro

Adrian Walker

A legendary advocate for the homeless calls it a career

A homeless person on a Boston sidewalk.
David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File
A homeless person on a Boston sidewalk.

Richard Ring has had a difficult relationship with the notion of calling it quits.

His 48 years on the front lines of working to house the city’s homeless have been interrupted a couple of times — once by a heart transplant — but he has always found himself dragged back to the battle that has defined his professional life.

For years, he was executive director of the Pine Street Inn; more recently, he has served two stints at the helm of Family Aid Boston. Now, at nearly 72, he is retiring for good next month.

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“On a personal level, it’s letting go of a lot of responsibility that I’ve carried for a long time,” he said Tuesday, with characteristic understatement.

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He began his career in 1969, just as homelessness was emerging as a social issue — when people were just beginning to think of so-called vagrants as human beings deserving of compassion and support.

Bill Brett for The Boston Globe/File
Richard Ring in 2016.

He started out as a daytime counselor at Pine Street, newly out of college. In those days Pine Street was actually on Pine Street, in Chinatown, and was all male.

“In those days, Pine Street was a shelter for 250 homeless men, and the vast majority would be classified as Skid Row alcoholic cases,” Ring said. “In those days, it was really alcoholism that made people homeless. That’s changed.”

There were two ferocious advocates who changed the way people thought about those who lived on the streets, and Ring cherishes the memory of each of them.

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“I have to mention Paul Sullivan at Pine Street and Kip Tiernan at Rosie’s Place,” he said. “Paul not only led Pine Street but created a consciousness in the city and state about people who were homeless and suffering.

“And then in 1974 Kip started Rosie’s Place for women. They were very different people and personalities, but each talked about the humanity and the respect that people on the streets deserved — that they should not be outcasts. I think they started a movement that engaged the entire community.”

Ring eventually succeeded Sullivan in running Pine Street. He was a fixture at City Hall, advising Mayors Raymond L. Flynn and Thomas M. Menino on homelessness. Menino often referred to him as “the godfather of ending homelessness in Boston.”

Both the city and state governments have long been supportive of homeless individuals and families, Ring says. But he worries that the high cost of housing in this area is making the issue even more difficult to address.

“In my lifetime, Boston really transformed itself into a world-class city and that’s a great thing,” Ring said. “But the downside is some people are left out of that.”

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I mentioned that Ring has retired before. That is not entirely by choice. In 2009, a sudden illness led to heart failure, resulting in a heart transplant. He left Family Aid to recover. But he couldn’t quite sit still.

As he got better, he began volunteering with Homes for Families, which is run by one of his legion of protegees, Libby Hayes. His health improved some more, and he joined the board of Family Aid Boston. When the executive director left, he asked for his old job back. The board was happy to give it to him. So much for retirement.

“The Rich Ring seal of approval carries a lot of weight,” said Hayes, executive director of Homes for Families. “Having him as an ally when I was starting my career has helped in opening doors and gaining credibility.”

Though he is far too unassuming to say this about himself, Ring long ago joined Sullivan and Tiernan as one of the greatest supporters Boston’s homeless have ever had.

“Personally, I’ve been lucky and fortunate to be involved in one of the greatest social issues of my lifetime in this city and state,” Ring said. “It’s serious business. It’s life and death for people, and that’s not an exaggeration.”

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