- Age: 76
- Position: Community volunteer
- Passions: Better services for the homeless; public transportation; early childhood education.
- Philosophy: “I really have trouble sleeping when it feels to me that we are unjust. Now I hardly sleep at all.”
A special section honoring your neighbors, unsung heroes and people who do the little things that just make life better in Lawrence.
Read about the honorees in the 2011 Only in Lawrence: "History" category.
Loring Henderson was new to this gig.
As the recently installed director of the Lawrence Community Shelter, he had been led to believe that the meetings of the city’s Community Development Block Grant Advisory Board were sedate.
That was fine with him. Henderson was at the meeting to do what the director of a homeless shelter often does — beg for money. His plan was like most other social service agencies seeking funding from the board. He would state the need, state the plan, and — honestly — suck up a little bit.
“I told them I knew they had more requests than money, and I thanked them for whatever they could do,” Henderson said.
In the audience was a woman, and Henderson certainly knew her. You don’t serve as the director of the Lawrence Community Shelter and not know Hilda Enoch.
But Henderson was new, so he didn’t really know her well.
Enoch certainly seemed to fit in. Even now, she appears to be a textbook picture of sedate — grandmotherly glasses, a walk that features a measured pace, and a voice that has more than a touch of quiver to it. At meetings like this one, she has been known to quietly sit in the audience and rest with closed eyes for long periods of time.
But now, at Henderson’s meeting, her eyes are wide open. She makes her way to the lectern. And in the way that Enoch has done so many times in her nearly 50 years in Lawrence, she makes it clear that the time for being sedate is over. This decision wasn’t difficult, she would say. This is about giving the most vulnerable among us a place to stay. This is basic.
“She just lit into them,” Henderson recalls. “She tore them up one side and down the other and left them in tatters. Then she walked back and took a seat beside me. She leaned over and said, ‘That’s what you should have told them.’”
That’s the thing about Enoch, the first honoree of the Only in Lawrence History Award — she’s not shy.
Enoch, now 76, tells the same story over and over.
Sure, some days the headline of the story is tweaked a little. Many days it is about homelessness. Many other days it is about public transit. Other days it is about affordable housing for senior citizens or early childhood education for the low-income, or some other issue that is a topic in social service boardrooms citywide.
But the plot of the story is always the same. It is about compassion and how we need more of it.
“I would describe Hilda as one of the people who has made a career of pricking the collective conscience of the community, especially the people who have been elected to make decisions for the community,” said Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug. “She pricks our conscience about issues we sometimes would rather not deal with.”
Enoch — after being nominated by Weinaug — has been named an inaugural winner of the Journal-World’s Larry Award.
Enoch, who wasn’t told of the award prior to publication of this article, insists that all she really is trying to do is get a good night’s sleep.
“I really have trouble sleeping when it feels to me that we are unjust,” Enoch said. “Now, I hardly sleep at all.”
The combination of being inebriated with no place to call home sounded like a really poor idea to Enoch. It was a subject that was getting a lot of talk in Lawrence a little more than a decade ago.
The Salvation Army had announced that guests of its homeless shelter would have to pass a Breathalyzer test before they could stay at the facility. There were several Lawrence leaders who hailed the idea. They said it was an act of tough love and would stop the process of enabling people with a problem.
Enoch, once a longtime volunteer at The Salvation Army, called it something else — appalling. That’s the way it works with Enoch. She usually passes over lesser emotions — like frustration, concern, even agitation — to get to the stronger stuff.
“It is a terrible thing to do to human beings,” Enoch still says.
But condemnation alone wasn’t going to satisfy Enoch. She had some experience with start-ups — in the ’60s she helped start The Children’s Hour preschool, and in the ’70s she helped start a program for foreign families living in Lawrence called Small World. So, Enoch helped form a group — the Coalition for Homeless Concerns — that opened its own shelter that would allow the homeless to stay regardless of whether they were inebriated. That project became the Lawrence Community Shelter.
At nearly the same time, Enoch was speaking every chance she got about public transit. The fact the city didn’t have a full-service public transit system wasn’t so much an infrastructure failure as it was a human failure.
“People couldn’t get to their jobs or they couldn’t get jobs because they had no transportation,” said Enoch, who grew up in Green Bay, Wis., wanting to follow in the footsteps of her attorney father but instead got a teaching degree. “People were just stuck, and we didn’t seem to care.”
That’s the other thing about Enoch — she frequently brings up an uncomfortable question. Do we care enough?
Yes, Lawrence has done some good things. The transit system is good, but still not good enough because it doesn’t run late enough, Enoch says. And the homeless shelter, well, don’t get her started. It is good that one exists, but it is shameful that the community hasn’t found the facility an adequate permanent home.
She lobs criticism in multiple directions on that one. There’s the “rich” folks who fought it being located in an industrial park near Douglas County Jail. She wishes everybody who ever has opposed the shelter would have to do some community service at the facility.
“I wish people would just realize that they are human beings with human needs,” Enoch said.
Then there are city commissioners themselves, who Enoch believes haven’t done enough to own up to their full responsibilities of serving the homeless.
“When the city gets upset with the shelter, that really bothers me,” Enoch said. “The group that runs the shelter has worked so hard to serve the homeless, but surely it is not their problem. Surely it is a community problem.
“But the city sometimes just gangs up on them and makes it sound like they should do something to get rid of their motley crew.”
All of it leads Enoch to a simple conclusion.
“After being here nearly 50 years,” Enoch said, “it seems to me that we still have to become a more compassionate community.”
In this town — one that considers itself built upon high ideals — that message can be hard to swallow, especially for people in the seats of power. Some elected officials did politely decline to comment for this article. Enoch wouldn’t have cared if they did. With Enoch, there’s no need to tip-toe around the subject of her popularity.
She knows she is not loved by all. But she does have a theory that makes her feel better.
“I know there are people who say, ‘Oh no, not her again,’” Enoch said of the speeches she makes at public meetings. “But I think they like me. They just don’t like my views. I think more than anything, it is that they don’t like to be told.”
Certainly, there are not only people who like Enoch, but who are glad that she’s around to do the telling.
“I really admire her,” said Saunny Scott, who worked closely with Enoch on forming the city’s first open homeless shelter. “But I couldn’t do the things she does.”
Alice Fowler, a former Lawrence school board member who worked with Enoch in starting The Children’s Hour preschool, said being the person who always speaks up can take a toll.
“So many times, you have people who don’t want to confront issues because they’re afraid that if they do, they won’t be perceived as likable,” Fowler said. “But Hilda, if she has an idea and knows it is right, she will go up against a buzz saw.”
Henderson, at the homeless shelter, knows Enoch much better now. These days, Henderson calls her his “heroine.” But he thinks the entire community ought to hold a special feeling for her, too.
“Every community needs a Hilda,” Henderson said. “It takes all types, but it certainly takes a Hilda. If you don’t have a Hilda, people get let off the hook. You let people do it the easy way.
“You need somebody in a community to give you the big nudge, and Hilda certainly does that.”