Loving Outside the Lines

Post by Amy Kessel for the Love for Love series.

A Homeless Artist Named Mani : print by TaoSorrento on Etsy

Loving Outside the Lines

The homeless. As if it’s possible to categorize a wildly diverse collection of individuals who for one reason or another are living on the streets (or couch surfing, or quadrupling up in apartments, or creatively getting from one day to the next without a home).

Calling them “the homeless” is a way to distance ourselves from people who are very much like us, but for a set of unfortunate circumstances. And that distance, while keeping us “safe”, also keeps us numb.

I don’t do numb very well. It hurts my heart to avert my eyes as I walk past people on the street. My blood pounds when I pretend not to hear the request for change, which is really a plea for recognition. In turning away from these people, I close down my heart. I deny their humanity and in turn, lose touch with my own.

When I was in my early twenties I worked as a legal advocate for the homeless in New York City. There I was, a privileged young woman from suburbia reaching across a sea of different into the lives of people who had been cast off and recategorized as hardly human. While they came to me for access to welfare workers, clothing vouchers and emergency funds, my clients left with something more fundamental.

I gave them my attention. I returned to them the reassurance that despite their shitty circumstances, they are a part of our society and more fundamentally they’re my brothers and sisters. When I sat face to face with them, I didn’t see “homeless person”, I saw “person”.

I reminded them of their humanity. And what I got in return was a gift that is still with me decades later.

In my work, I heard intimate stories about injustice, shame and disappointment; and I was also witness to private hopes and dreams. I asked, and my clients revealed the tender and gory details. I was trusted with information that broke my heart and infuriated me and made me love them.

The friendships I formed with my clients changed my life. There was Louis, an elderly Haitian man stranded in a Bowery flophouse. When he discovered that I spoke French he allowed me to help him untangle the mess that had become his life after losing his green card, his job and his apartment. He wore a three-piece suit to our meetings and brought me homemade treats. He shared his beautiful poetry with me. Many times I laughed until I cried.

And there was Gwen, who brought her young twins along to the weekly legal clinic. You’d never guess from her appearance what she’d been through or where she was in her journey – the dignity and determination that kept her alive was etched in the lines of her face. Gwen would call me from pay phones just to say hi or to have her girls sing me a song.

Homeless? Yes. Beautiful souls? Oh yes.

My friendships with Louis and Gwen and many others deepened the way I connect. Opening to relationships with people who were way outside of socially prescribed norms freed me to explore what it’s like to love without reference points. Now, at mid-life, I find myself surrounded with relationships that are well within my comfort zone. I’m blessed with all this love, indeed. And yet I long, too, for the raw, heartfelt connection I found in these old friendships.

I wish that things were different. I wish that people on the streets of Manhattan and elsewhere weren’t ignored, criminalized or attacked for simply being alive. I wish there were comprehensive services available to all that would disrupt the downward spiral whose endpoint is homelessness. I wish that all people felt safe, respected and free.

And given that these wishes aren’t likely to come true anytime soon, I wish for an upsurge in kindness and empathy from us all. For myself, I ask that I slow down enough to engage folks in conversation rather than dropping some coins in their hat and slinking past. I encourage my kids to say hello when we walk by someone seated on the sidewalk, rather than looking away. We talk about what leads people to homelessness, and wonder about the families that are missing their sons, their mamas or their sisters. We remember that underneath the dirty coat is a man or a woman, not “the homeless”.

In keeping our hearts open to the Gwen’s and the Louis’es we encounter, we maintain the essential human to human connection that feeds our souls. Because closing off our hearts not only shields us from pain and discomfort, it also keeps us from the stuff that nourishes us like nothing else.

Amy Kessel is a certified coach for women, a mama and a yogini. She initiates life-defining conversations with women who are unfurling, and has created a comprehensive coaching practice to help them step more fully into who they are becoming. Sign up for her free eGuide, Reclaiming Your Brilliance.


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