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Saturday, July 12, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Light Rain
The Paper


My Hero: Donna Asif
Conversations with the homeless

Asif sees the homeless as 'full of marvelous qualities.'
Asif sees the homeless as 'full of marvelous qualities.'
Credit:Amber Arnold
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Anyone who could legitimately be called a hero is bound to reject the title. Heroes are humble and don't do what they do for recognition or personal gain.

Such is the case with Donna Asif, 65, a tireless advocate for the homeless in Madison. She says of her work that there is "no self-sacrifice. On the contrary, I'm rewarded continually by the joy and satisfaction of being useful."

Asif was confronted by the issue of homelessness and her own "ignorance and discomfort about it" when she moved downtown in 2003 and saw so many of her neighbors experiencing "alienation, humiliation and physical hardship."

Other people might have written a check to the local soup kitchen, complained to their alder or called the police. Asif took a different tack: She started talking with and learning from those who are homeless. Since then, she's helped many to lead more dignified, healthy and rewarding lives.

She distributes clothing and material and assists the homeless in accessing services. She has helped some vulnerable individuals permanently out of homelessness, step-by-step. And since 2007 she has led the monthly "Dialogues on Homelessness," from fall to spring, bringing together people from all walks of life to share stories and form "transformative relationships."

That's all wonderful, but it's not why I've singled out Asif. It's her attitude, which involves no pedantry or condescension. She sees the homeless not as helpless victims needing to be saved or a "problem" to be pushed off the streets, but as human beings.

"They're full of marvelous qualities," she says. "Even in their difficult circumstances they have so much to offer. It's an undervalued part of our community, and there is great tragedy for us all in this loss."

Asif learned this early on in her conversations, discovering how perceptive, compassionate and knowledgeable these people can be. And while they might be guarded, she says, "raw to humiliation, stereotyping and re-traumatizing, they're also genuinely open to authentic connections of respect and kindness - responding with exceptional appreciation."

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