Janice Hibbert, 1942—1996

Janice Hibbert
Janice Hibbert at the first WHEEL Homeless Women’s Forum, 1995

Words by Michele Marchand

Originally published in Real Change June 1996

Janice Hibbert, friend to WHEEL, Noel House, and Church of Mary Magdalene, died on April 5th [1996] after a short but intense struggle with breast cancer. She will be sorely missed.

Janice began working with WHEEL (Women’s Housing, Equality and Enhancement League) last fall during the planning process for the Homeless Women’s Forum. She was homeless herself; had taken leadership at one of our self-managed shelters, and was committed to finding ways to destigmatize homelessness for her sisters at the same time she worked on finding herself a job. She’d been a registered nurse most of her adult life, but was in the process of honing her computer skills for a new career.

Her connection to WHEEL was characterized by grace and humor—a really dry, Midwestern humor. She was a statuesque woman from Nebraska; majestic in a quiet, special way.

Janice was always willing to chair a meeting, saying, “I need the practice.” Sometimes it seemed like she wasn’t paying attention, but she always was. She faithfully attended planning sessions, designed flyers, hoofed around downtown and tried to convince other women to get involved based on the passion of her convictions. The Homeless Women’s Forum meant a lot to Janice because of its attempt to shed light on the gifts of women, like herself, who just happened to be homeless.

When Janice got sick she was pretty scared, but she faced her fear with the same humor she used during the chaos and tension in WHEEL. “You’ve taken this tissue sample, boys,” she’d joke with the doctors at Harborview Hospital, “now go find me the cure!” She made some kind of joke about wig-making when her hair began to fall out, too. All she wanted, she said when I went to visit her in the hospital, was dry roasted peanuts and seek-and-find puzzles. Actually, she didn’t even care what kind of peanuts I brought. Her desires were quite humble.

Perhaps too humble, I think in retrospect. What I won’t forget was how much and how hard Janice had to strategize to get what she really needed—a safe and comfortable place to stay once chemotherapy started. Janice wanted to make sure the hospital social workers didn’t release her to the streets. She’d seen—we’ve all seen—women who are in bad shape released to shelters, with no provision for aftercare. So Janice carefully crafted a strategy to make sure this didn’t happen to her. What she did in the process was forsake her safety network…she had to pretend to have no one who cared, nowhere to go upon release.

Janice ended up spending some time in a nursing home between visits to the hospital for therapy treatments. It happened that I was in the hospital at the same time, so Janice and I commiserated over the phone several times in our separate morphine stupors. Her concern for me in the midst of her own pain was astonishing, heartbreaking, inspirational.

She died alone, at the University of Washington Hospital. Having forsaken her safe net to gain a temporary spot in a nursing home, she didn‘t have folks around her at the end who might’ve been able to say how much she meant to us, how much her work meant.

Myself, I believe Janice knew how much she was loved, for we did love her dearly. And now we offer her spirit up…

Featured Leaf March 2013

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