Us becomes them in the Harmony Lot

If you suddenly find yourself vulnerable, will people come to your aid when you need it most? And how will that experience affect your own perception of those who communicate with strangers on the streets?

In an interview with The Commons, Patsy Cushing described an experience, one that shifted her perception of homelessness and panhandling on a cold and blustery day.

Cushing said that she had driven downtown, parked her car in the Harmony Lot, and then took a bad fall.

She remained on the ground for a few minutes.

“I had on my parka, and I was dressed warmly enough because of the wind, and had no scrapes or anything at all, but it took me a minute or two before I could move,” Cushing said.

She needed some assistance.

A man walked by, holding the hand of a girl, presumably his daughter, who looked about 8 years old.

“She locked eyes with me,” Cushing said. “She saw me down there on the ground, and she just kind of stared.”

She was back over on her knees and working her way up, awkwardly. Her right leg was not working well.

A group of people came by. One of them glanced in her direction, but they continued on.

“The man with his daughter were going into Everyone's Books and she turned back around to look at me, and check to see what was going on with me,” Cushing said.

She said something to her father. In response, her father turned around and looked at Cushing. He then pulled his daughter into the bookstore.

Cushing also knew she would need to start moving before her body froze up. Finally, alone, she found her way to her feet. And finally, alone, she found herself able to walk.

While she was in the process of trying to recover from the initial shock of the fall, and after taking in these silent interactions with individuals passing by, Cushing said that she started to think about how people were perceiving her.

What do I look like? she wondered. What am I looking like right now?

* * *

Cushing said that later that day, she encountered a man sitting on one of the doorsteps on Elliot Street and engaged him in a brief conversation.

She learned he was homeless. She gave him a few dollars in response to his ask for change.

Then she noticed that his hands seemed a bit raw from the cold.

She took him to Sam's to buy a pair of gloves.

They went outside, and he asked another favor.

“He said he could use a hot meal,” Cushing said. “I handed him some money and again, he again just lit up and threw his arms around me. He was just - he was wonderful. His eyes were just so clear and deep. He was a lovely person, a lovely being.

“And we had this long hug standing there all bundled up, he with his gloves on, and said goodbye.”

* * *

After spending some time downtown, Cushing found herself still hampered from the fall. As she was getting ready to head home again, she dropped her keys in the process of trying to get into her car.

Not wanting to chance another mishap, she tried to call for some help to a few individuals headed to their car.

Three people, two men and a woman, continued to get into their car despite her call for help.

Finally, one of the men came over. Cushing was sure that he was assuming that she was panhandling or running some scam.

As she explained her situation, the man finally realized that she was asking only for some help to get her keys.

She said that as he helped her, one of his friends called over to make sure everything was all right.

* * *

Cushing describes how she has dealt with panhandlers and how this experience changed her perception.

“I realized that the veil between us and them has been thick, a proscenium curtain,” Cushing said. “It's been that heavy, that thick, and is just ludicrous.”

Like the line between actors on stage and the audience, the invisible wall between communities of vulnerable people on the street and those in stable lives and circles of support seems obviously and clearly defined - but isn't actually physically there.

“I mean, it is just laughable to think that it is so close,” she said. “It's so thin, it's so easy to cross over, and I did that - I crossed over that somehow, not out of choice.”

“I've said, 'Hello,' or asked, 'How is your day,'” she said. “And when I am asked for money, sometimes I say yes. And sometimes I say no, sorry.”

“Before this happened, I'd never thought about it,” she said. “I mean I was being in a certain way, not thinking about that at all until this happened, and suddenly I was that person in need of help and I wasn't getting it and I wasn't being trusted.”

“I think compassion easily turns into something that is sympathy,” Cushing said. “It turns into 'Let me help you, let me do something for you,' and that is contributing to separation.”

The concept of dignity allows the possibility that there can be a transaction with both parties on the same footing.

“The other person can do something for you, you can exchange that you are equals in compassion,” she said.

She said that she had come to reflect on the ways in which all the help directed toward people who are panhandling or visibly homeless also risks reinforcing a separation.

Attempts to do good may sometimes reinforce a sense that the person being helped is the other, not part of the community, she said.

“Sometimes the 'doing' allows people who are engaged in the 'doing' to go home to their spaces and live their lives, and they've done their good deed and it makes [them] feel good,” Cushing said.

“It does give the other person in need food, but it doesn't give them respect and dignity. It doesn't build them up.”

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