Home > Blog: Currents & Futures > Currents & Futures 05: HOMELESSNESS AND VISION: BIRTHING THE 21ST CENTURY CITY

Currents and Futures

[NOTE: Join a LIVE DISCUSSION of this topic, with like-minded change agents, on Wednesday, 9 May.  See information at the end of this article…]Birthing the Compassionate City: Ending the City of SufferingI have been witness to a lot of the world’s suffering.  I’ve seen it from the inside, growing up in Camden, NJ.   I’ve been witness to poverty on five continents.  I’ve been to 50 or 60 refugee camps, in Asia and Africa – containers of human suffering and misery.So, it’s safe to say I know a refugee camp when I see one.  “Homelessness” is an American euphemism for domestic refugee camps.The statistics on homelessness are chilling.  It’s one of the many epidemics plaguing America right now.  Our cities smolder, while our politicians do less than Nero.  (Check this link for information on the disturbing national rise of tent cities, squatter camps.

As a society, we don’t talk about homelessness, or people begging in the streets.  People who are homeless are supposed to be invisible.  Or, if we do, we treat it as a local problem (not a national/global one).  We don’t talk about it, even when it reaches epidemic proportions.

For many of us, parts of the Titanic are already under water.

But… rather than drowning in the freezing water, or waiting for the ship to sink completely, I am working with groups of “new pioneers”, formerly homeless people who are recreating the city – creating from a new vision, tossing out the old rulebooks, and building the 21st Century City… not because it’s a “good idea”, but because our mutual survival depends on it.

Birthing the Innovative City:  “People Power” as the Antidote to Bureaucratic Thinking

Much of the suffering in the world is human-created – misplaced priorities, the invisibility of poverty, archaic and foolish notions about the causes of poverty, and a bureaucratic mindset that favors rule enforcement over human survival with dignity.

In subtle yet inexorable ways, our lives are ruled by layers of bureaucracy – rules and codes that none of us created but all of us are bound by.

A law, code or regulation is simply crystallized consciousness.  It represents what a group of people thought about a given condition, at a given point in time.  Most of our laws work well enough; some are neutral; and an unfortunate number are absurd, stupid and morally bankrupt.

Some of our laws and codes were written by people who were racist, sexist and elitist.  Some were written by people with good hearts but foolish ideas of how the world works.  Some were written by people who were completely ignorant of the subject they governed.  Some were written to solve Problem #1… but instead created Problem #2.

The laws, codes and regulations have no real answers – and the problems grow worse.  Solutions to the “round pegs” of poverty and homelessness cannot be found within the “square holes” of the City Code.

Rather than waiting for solutions that never come, some 21st Century pioneers have empowered themselves to model their own solutions.  In doing this, they may be pointing the way to a future that works for all.

Ending Homelessness – with Dignity

Here in Portland, we have shining examples of non-bureaucratic self-governance: “Dignity Village” (a village of people who were formerly homeless) and “Right to Dream, Too” (a tent city, known by its acronym “R2D2”).  These “people power” villages are examples of a powerful idea: when people experiencing homelessness set up their own camps, with their own rules and regulations, internally agreed to and enforced, homeless camps turn into MODEL VILLAGES – free from the problems that plague all cities.  Villages of formerly homeless people can become viable models for alternatives to Breaker Society – for everyone.


What Dignity Village HAS:

What Dignity Village LACKS:

Respect & Dignity

Drug and alcohol abuse

Uplifting attitude

Violence & intimidation






Anti-social behavior

Internal Security

A need for city police

Consensus governance and decision-making

Adherence to the City Code

Experiments in alternative living (micro-houses; alternative construction materials; micro-ecological footprint; shared/communal facilities…)

The depression that comes from living without hope, without dreams, and without a place to rest.

To its credit, the city government of Portland has had a decade-long agreement with Dignity Village, one that has worked well for the City and for the 60 or so Dignity Village residents.  I am assisting Dignity Village and its many supporters and advocates to take the next step: from one “transitional camp” to many “intentional, alternative, sustainable, complementary, experimental and visionary” villages.

With Dignity Village and R2D2, Portland lives up to its motto: “Keep Portland Weird!”  And, given the magnitude of the homeless problem and the need for “out of the box” thinking… PORTLAND IS ABOUT TO GET A LOT WEIRDER!

A very important point: Commonway’s goal in doing this work is not just to “end homelessness”.  As important as that goal is, to me it is a by-product of the larger vision: creating a CITY that works for ALL, by creating new, exciting and visionary “experiments in living”.

Then, using Portland’s experiences as models, we create “The City of the 21st Century” – a collection of self-empowered, sustainable, visionary villages.  We will be fulfilling Gandhi’s dream, what he called “grama swaraj” (self-ruled villages).

Our Bridge to a Future – with Dignity

Working with the residents of Dignity Village and R2D2 provides a powerful opportunity to connect with “The Other”, while gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves.  Helping “them” means helping ourselves.

Would you like to help?





#1:   Let’s engage in a live dialog on this subject!   If you are interested in a FREE phone gathering, on Wednesday, 9 May at 7pm Pacific time, using the Maestro Conference interface.  Please register by clicking here: Currents & Futures Live Discussion.  It is free, but registration is necessary to receive call-in instructions.

#2:  Attend my all-day workshop on 19 May: THE DREAM OF THE LOTUS: The Challenge of Homelessness in an Inclusive Society).  For more information on the workshop, CLICK HERE.

#3:  Participate in a “Commons Café” live, interactive dialog – which will include residents of Dignity Village, R2D2 and inclusive housing advocates.  (The Commons Café will take place during the last week in May.  More information will be available during the Wednesday dialog.)


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