City Desk

Remembering Mary Ann Luby

Earlier this week, the news came of Mary Ann Luby's passing. She was 70 years old. The Washington Post noted her tireless advocacy for the homeless as the director of a women's shelter and as an outreach worker for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Her co-workers at the legal clinic wrote on their blog:

"For those who might not know her history, Mary Ann, who was an Adrian Dominican Sister, has been involved in the Legal Clinic since our inception. As director of Rachael’s Women’s Center during the ‘80’s and early ‘90’s she was one of the providers we consulted back in 1985 when trying to figure out how lawyers could best serve our neighbors who are homeless. She became an early board member of the legal clinic and served in that capacity until joining our staff in 1995.

Mary Ann was instrumental to the founding of Fair Budget Coalition, believing deeply in the need to work collaboratively and to support community members in lifting up their voices.At every turn, she has challenged us to be faithful to the people whom we serve."

I knew Mary Ann, too. Those of us that covered the homeless had to know Mary Ann. She was our first phone call. Working on a story about a shelter closing? Call Mary Ann. Just gotten assigned a piece on police mishandling mentally-ill residents in crisis? Call Mary Ann. Writing a story on crummy conditions at the emergency shelter? Call Mary Ann. I still remember shouting her name to an intern or a WCP newbie. You had to call Mary Ann. Always.

Mary Ann didn't miss anything. A shelter closing. Poor conditions for mentally-ill women in trailers. A police zero-tolerance policy in Chinatown in the mid '90s. A brief search of Washington City Paper's poorly kept archives shows Mary Ann popping up in stories dating back more than a decade: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. And here. Just as important as a Mary Ann quote was a Mary Ann tip.

I want to say Mary Ann called me in the fall of 2009. She didn't just call me. She called and called. She could be relentless. She wanted a meeting to talk about the District government's really bad planning for the upcoming winter, and a particularly bad private shelter manager called Families Forward Inc. I tried to bag out several times; this wasn't my beat. But I finally relented. The other reporter couldn't find the time. So I took the meeting.

Mary Ann helped put those issues on my radar and she was right on both fronts: the city was ill-equipped to deal with the influx of homeless families last winter; the mayor would eventually fire Families Forward from managing the city''s emergency shelter after allegations arose of misconduct. I owe Mary Ann a debt of gratitude to opening my eyes to those issues. I won't ever forget that meeting.

I found out about Mary Ann's passing via a former colleague's Facebook wall posting. That reporter had moved on; it's been a while since she wrote about the District or its homeless. She now works at Mother Jones. But you just don't forget Mary Ann. It was a fitting way to find out such sad news.

I'm going to miss her. We're all going to miss her. I couldn't help but think how we needed her this week. She would have been at that marathon gap-closing hearing before the D.C. Council. She would have gotten up, as she had done countless times, and testified on behalf of people few ever show genuine concern over. She would have then left the Wilson Building and undoubtedly checked on the homeless sleeping outside.

I wonder how we are ever going to fill Mary Ann's place. I'm not sure we will.

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  • Will Singer

    Thanks Cherkis for writing this remembrance of a tenacious advocate who spoke truth to anyone who would listen and listened to anyone with something to say. Mary Ann was a force.

  • Truth Hurts

    I second Will Singer. Poignant, well-written tribute. Keep writing about people who live nobly.

  • Sue Shankle

    Thanks so much for your piece. Mary Ann was such an inspiration to me. And you're right-she can't be replaced.

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