Home > Blog: Currents & Futures > Homelessness, Inclusivity and the Death of Assumptions

Currents and Futures

 [This article is adapted from a talk given to Portland’s “Coordinating Committee to End Homelessness” on 17 October, 2012, at First Methodist Church.]Greetings;My theme today is “Healing Our Damaged Hearts”. I want to talk to you about Heart damage. Not damage to our physical blood pumps, but how our Hearts are injured in our everyday interactions with each other. How our Hearts are injured by our society.In going around the world, I’ve been to more refugee camps than I can count, in Africa and in South Asia. Refugee camps are pockets of despair. I go as a witness.

I remember in one refugee camp in Sri Lanka, a woman came up to me with a simple question: “When can I go home?” She stopped me in my tracks.  I didn’t know how to answer her. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her home was probably destroyed, or was taken over by the Tamil Tigers. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that in all likelihood, she could never go home.  I had no response to her despair.

I’ve also been to two refugee camps right here in the United States. In fact, here in Portland, Oregon. One’s called Dignity Village, and the other “Right to Dream, Too (R2DToo). You don’t have to go thousands of miles away to see the conditions of a refugee camp. You can see the same thing, right here in your own cities.

With tens of thousands of people in domestic refugee camps, we have to start asking the question:  WHERE’S THE WAR?

Service Providers and Damaged Hearts

In these refugee camps, both international and domestic, I’ve seen conditions of despair. I’ve seen damaged people. Those of you who are direct service providers see those conditions every day. If someone is talking to you, it’s pretty sure that, for them, you are their last resort. And, for many of you, you don’t have a solution for them. You don’t have a way to ease their despair. You may give them a bed for a night, or a week.  You may refer them to another agency or another organization, passing them along… but you know that will not solve their problem, either.

We see destitute people seeking services as having damaged Hearts. But, it’s time for us to acknowledge that their damage hits you – right in the heart. If you’re really doing your job, you cannot help but pick up their energy of hopelessness and despair. This is especially true when you do not have solutions for them; when you’re filling out paperwork, but not solving problems.

My question is, how can we heal OUR damaged Hearts, not just “those people over there”.

We as Heart damaged people go on to create a Heart damaged society. We don’t want to do this – but it becomes our default position, our status quo.

Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve the problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Many of us know that quote, but we still ignore it! We keep doing the same things over and over again, expecting things to change, expecting new solutions to miraculously appear!  It’s like we’re stuck on stupid.

When will we start doing things differently?

Inclusivity as the Cure for Homelessness

The goal of Commonway is to create a world that works for all beings. The primary value of Commonway is INCLUSIVITY, the notion that my life is inextricably linked to yours, and to all other beings.

“Inclusivity” is not “inclusion” or “inclusiveness” or any of the other wishy-washy ways of saying it. (I can be very firm about this, since I did write a book about it!) Inclusivity is about being connected to each other – whether we know each other or not, whether we LIKE each other or not, and whether or not it is comfortable or “politically correct” to do so.

If we actually believe in inclusivity, if we actually PRACTICED inclusivity, the things that we see as problems in our society today, problems like poverty and homelessness, would simply disappear. If we practiced inclusivity, we would stop seeing homelessness as a “problem”, and start seeing it as an “opportunity”.

The Death of Assumptions

Homelessness can be resolved, in the blink of an eye, by changing our assumptions. Most of the time, we go about our work, without questioning the assumptions that lie behind that work. One of Commonway’s teachings is that we should always question all of the underpinnings, especially when we see that things aren’t working.

To keep this in mind, I created a new word: MAPS-2. That stands for:

  • Materials
  • Methodologies
  • Attitudes
  • Assumptions
  • Principles
  • Paradigms
  • Systems
  • Structures

In short MAPS-2, stands for all of the things that exist as the underpinnings in how we see our work, and even how we see reality. By actually questioning these things, we can begin to see the places where our societal problems exist solely because of outdated, outmoded, or in some cases, outlandish attitudes and assumptions.

MAPS-2 stands for everything that you must change, if you honestly want to end homelessness. Everything that you must change, if you honestly want to end poverty. Not someone else – you.

It’s Time for “Plan B”

We have to start looking at the death of assumptions – killing those assumptions that lead to an increase in despair and Heart damage. In the movie “The Untouchables”, Malone (played by Sean Connery) says to Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner), “What are you prepared to do to get Al Capone?” Ness says, “Everything within the law.” Malone then says, “And THEN what are you prepared to do?”

Each one of you, as service providers to homeless people, is at that “… And then?” moment. Because, each one of you is at Year Seven of a ten-year mandate to end all homelessness in the city of Portland. And, if you are being honest with yourself, you will realize that you won’t make it. If you keep doing what you’re doing, you will NEVER make it.

Unlike in the movie, you won’t have to kill any people to reach your goal! You WILL, however, have to kill more than a few assumptions. (You may find that is a pretty hard task.)

Lessons from Dignity Village

I spent some time this spring working in Dignity Village. I did eight Commonway workshops there, and, in addition, spent time in daily meditation with some of the residents. I learned a LOT about our society from my interactions there. More than a few of my assumptions were laid to rest right there.

Of the four or five major lessons I learned while working in Dignity Village, I’ll share one with you: Homelessness is not a problem. Homelessness is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to see societal transformation from the inside out. As Dignity Village is on the leading edge of societal transformation, each one of you has the opportunity to become midwives to the birth of a society that works for all.

This approach requires that you stop looking at the immediacy of each person who does not have a home, and look at the system as a whole.

Homelessness, people living on the streets, Dignity Village, R2DToo… these elements make up the leading edge of a wave that requires a transformation of our entire society. If your goal is to have homeless people enter the “mainstream”, you really need to check your assumptions.

Commonway helps organizations see, understand and adopt the values and visions of a 21st Century society that works for all.  Together, we can establish totally new ways of thinking about ourselves, thinking about “the Other” and thinking about our society. Together, operating from a new set of assumptions, we can transform our city, and serve as a model to the entire nation.

We’re all doing the same work. I wish us all well.



PS: I will be offering an all-day workshop on “Healing Our Damaged Hearts on Saturday, 3 November 2012.  For more information, click here:  Healing Our Damaged Hearts.

PPS:  Feel free to share this widely.

[NOTE:  While I welcome your comments, I do not post comments from “Anonymous”, or from bogus email addresses.  That is not the kind of society that we should support.  The next society will be based on love and community, not snarkiness and anonymity.]

[On the other hand: there may be valid reasons why you don’t want your name used.  (For example: job-related issues.  It’s happened before.)  Send me an email and let’s discuss it.]


14 Comments, RSS

  • Chuck Willis

    says on:
    October 21, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    As I read your well worded presentation, Sharif, what comes to my mind is the example you have used before of the playground. In your example, half of the playground is comprised of swing sets, sliding boards, merry-go-rounds, etc. and has both few and simple (behavioral) rules: Don’t hurt yourself, don’t hurt someone else, and don’t damage the equipment. The other half is a basketball court. This side has an almost countless set of rules and regulations that are constantly reviewed and modified as “needed” to “improve” the “game” (i.e., life on that side of the park). OK, it’s a simple and effective example of the kind of differences one may experience between “building codes” (or, the lack of them) at Dignity Village versus real building codes applicable to the City of Portland and surrounding area. I get it that life COULD be simpler – especially if we could all TRUST each other to “play fair” (i.e., not take advantage of others). But, REAL solutions are far more complex to derive than their idealized underling principles might suggest. Who among us believes that we don’t need building codes to protect consumers, especially the underprivileged and especially with respect to affordable, safe and functional housing? And, the unfortunate counterpoint is that the cost of “affordable, safe and functional” is well beyond the means of those who are currently dwelling in Dignity Village, and many others of our brothers and sisters. They, too, need “homes” (i.e., effective protection from harsh weather conditions, access to sanitation, etc.). So, do we just draw the proverbial line in the sand and say, “Few rules over ‘there’ and full rules over ‘here’, for those fortunate enough to be able to afford them.”? Is it really that simple? Right now, “there” looks like Dignity Village and R2DToo. How far, and where, do we expand those “resources”? What responsibility do we accept, or write off, for the inevitable problems (i.e., fire) that will eventually arise within these communities? What options lie between the two sides of the playground? I’m open to some serious inspiration, with gratitude, from wherever it may come.

    • Sharif

      says on:
      October 22, 2012 at 10:44 am

      First: Thanks for a clear rendition of the Playground Metaphor!

      Second: The dilemma you pose (the need/necessity/availability/cost of the “rule” based housing) is very real.

      However, the solution to that dilemma is NOT complex at all. JUST EXTEND THE METAPHOR. There’s a playground, with the basketball court side, the sandbox and swing set side, already set up. On the basketball side, there are 3 people with striped shirts and whistles, to monitor every step of the “game”. On the sandbox side, there are a couple of people to monitor the FOUR rules. (You forgot #4: everybody gets to have fun!)

      Once it’s set up, you simply ask a question: “WHICH SIDE DO YOU WANT TO PLAY ON?” Those with the skills, resources and focus will go to the basketball side. Those who can’t play basketball — or don’t WANT to — can go to the other side. It really is that simple! “We” don’t draw the line in the sand… the line draws itself.

      Right now, in our society, those in authority say, “Play basketball, or sleep under a bridge! The entire Playground is regulated… by US!” If you go downtown and look at the HUNDREDS of people standing in line for a bed for the night, for a bowl of soup, you can see that the existing system simply does not want.

      Thanks for posing this issue, so eloquently!



      • Chuck Willis

        says on:
        October 22, 2012 at 1:24 pm

        And … what about the issue of responsibility to/for those who “choose” (or can only afford) to live on the sandbox side of the playground? What do we do when Dignity Village doubles or triples in size and then catches on fire? Sooner or later, it’s going to happen.

        • Sharif

          says on:
          October 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm

          I’m not sure I understand your question. What is the responsibility of poor people for rich people, if/when the rich community is hit by an asteroid?

          This is NOT a far-fetched question: during the last big earthquake in San Francisco, “poor” people from the surrounding communities climbed up into the wreckage of the 880 expressway, to rescue “rich” people who were trapped in their vehicles when the expressway collapsed.

          The responsibility of human beings is to act with compassion toward those who need it — regardless of what “side” of the playground they may be on…


          PS: And, the size limit of Dignity Village is 60 people… And the Fire Marshall goes out once a quarter, to make sure everyone stays safe. And, everyone cooperates with him… not because of rules and regulations, but because it’s the right thing to do…

  • Jean Marr

    says on:
    October 21, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    In Corvallis there are many yards that have room for a small garage or workshop or have one already that is falling down. I think the city or Habitat for Humanity or some other organization should help us build these structures with the agreement that we build on a second story with a small apartment. For the first X number of years we could be required to rent to people qualified for subsidized housing. In this area, most people who have these kinds of yards are also low income, so these apartments will also provide income to keep us in our houses. During the building process it would be wonderful to participate in a Healing Our Damaged Hearts workshop to help us become a real community. This could also be combined with a “Housing First” initiative.

    • Sharif

      says on:
      October 22, 2012 at 10:27 am

      Jean, this is EXACTLY the kind of community-wide, “out of the box” thinking that can resolve our challenges in the twinkling of an eye!

      Turning “houses for cars” into “houses for people”! (Cars really don’t care that they sleep out in the rain. In fact, they’re built for it.)

      With a combination of massive self-help, plus the assistance (not the “doing”) of professional organizations, the brunt of the problem would simply melt away. Of course, there will be those people/families who are so injured (physically, emotionally, societally, spiritually) that they would not be able to participate. The helping agencies could help that trickle, instead of the flood they are trying to cope with now.

      There are many, many such ideas available (some even better!), once we let go of our blinders, keeping us locked into the status quo…



  • ted lumley

    says on:
    October 21, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    hi sharif,

    i definitely empathize with what you are trying to do, as i have told you before, but i see something missing in your approach.

    will you see it? i doubt it. most people cannot see it. am i nuts? perhaps, but i don’t think so.

    i dialogue every day with people tired of the system, angry with the system, eager to change the system, but in most cases they don’t see how they are ‘missing’ what is deeply wrong. that is my view. that is what i am trying to share with you (i have tried before).

    Russell Means says the same thing but in different language.

    so, you write;

    “When will we start doing things differently?”

    and i will say again, ‘when our values change’.

    when we come to realize that our rational approach does not work. our rational attempt to try to encourage people to do things differently not only does not work, … it is the problem!

    the rational approach is the problem because it doesn’t ask us to question our values [e.g. of using rational approaches to solve complex social problems] which are the source of our social problems.

    you are not asking us to question our basic values. you are pointing to the problem being elsewhere, like a problem that our rational mind can solve which implies that there is nothing wrong with our values, it is just a matter of getting everyone’s attention and getting them to rally to the cause and to ‘do things differently’.

    this is not it!

    as far as i can see, your MAPS-2 list doesn’t touch it;

    i have appended an excerpt from my notes as to the needed transformation of values. these may look funny to you but these are implicit in many aboriginal cultures.


    ted lumley

    the following is a summary of the needed transformation of values;

    The quick statement on TRANSFORMATION OF VALUES is as follows;
    Morality has to go. Western justice has to go. Crime and punishment as concepts have to go. Sovereigntism has to go. The opposites of selfishness and altruism have to go. Cooperation as in ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours has to go. The concepts of personal achievement and personal failure-to-achieve have to go. The concepts of creation and destruction have to go. . The concept of polar opposites has to go. The concepts of absolute space and absolute time have to go [from their traditional foundational support role in our worldview]

    I Personally Affirm the following ‘new values’ at the same time as I renounce the corresponding predecessor values, in this TRANSFORMATION OF VALUES.

    1. I affirm belief in the connectedness of all things and renounce belief in the ‘existence’ of ‘things-in-themselves’ that ‘have their own internal process sourced development and behaviour’.

    2. I affirm belief in a relational space or ‘web-of-life’ that includes us all in the behaviour of any as in ‘restorative justice’ and renounce belief in applying good and evil moral codes to ‘what [notional] things-in-themselves do’.

    3. I affirm belief in understanding all dynamics as the transformation of relations and renounce belief in understanding dynamics as constructive or destructive actions.

    4. I affirm belief in life as transformation where ‘constructive actions’ and ‘destructive actions’ are conjugate aspects of the one dynamic of transformation and renounce belief in attaching positive value to ‘constructive/productive accomplishments’ and negative value to ‘destruction’.

    5. I affirm belief in valuing labour in the context of sustaining balance and harmony in the relational web of community and renounce the use of money as a substitute for ‘value’, ‘wages’ [‘paid labour’] to split people out of engaging in the ‘relational web of community’ and reduce them to cogs in money-orchestrated community-machinery.

    6. I affirm belief in the free association of people in Nature and in their will and ability to cultivate and sustain balance and harmony in such free association and I renounce belief in the commoditizing of the spatial-plenum and the practice of notionally fragmenting the Natural living space into tracts of ‘owned property’, such as ‘sovereign states’.

    7. I affirm belief in a world without beginning, without end, that does not grow bigger or smaller, that does not expend itself but only transforms itself; as a whole, of unalterable size, a household without expenses or losses, but likewise without increase or income [Nietzsche], … and I renounce belief in using ‘scientific thinking’ in terms of a world seen as an absolute space and time operating theatre populated by a multiplicity of things-in-themselves, as a guide to individual and collective behaviour.

    * * *

    In some sense, (7) captures all of the rest since even the monotheist Creation myth epitomizes the representation of the world dynamic in terms of ‘figures-in-themselves’ and their time-based emergence, out of the context of any ‘dynamic ground’ or ‘flow’ or ‘spatial-plenum’ or ‘energy-charged medium’.

    As far as I can see, and given that ‘there is good and bad in all things’, scientific thinking is a disaster in its having given people a tool to predict time based outcomes of the interactions of ‘foreground figures’ out of the context of the ‘dynamic ground’ that is the physical reality, and in so doing orchestrating their behaviours in the service of producing planned outcomes.

    It is a disaster because the real physical dynamic is the transforming of the relational space that we and these foreground figures are included in, and this transformation, the over-riding physical reality, plays out with us included in it, while we are fiddling with the foreground figures to achieve time-based constructions/outcomes that satisfy our near term desires; i.e. we destroy the hive to get the honey.

    Giving children/people the tool of scientific thinking is like giving them a gun with a U-shaped barrel that discharges in the face of its user.

    The time-based predictive power of science has everybody dancing merrily to its tunes, putting their behaviours in the service of bringing about planned and predicted outcomes while transformation of the relational living space we are included in is what is really unleashed. This is the incoherence in the social dynamic that Bohm speaks of.

    It is dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb and like Russell Means remarks;

    “… duhhh! Why anyone hasn’t woken up to this fact, … it’s beyond me.” —Russell Means

    * * * * * * * * * *

  • Lisa Danovich ASID, MFA MSW

    says on:
    October 22, 2012 at 9:40 am

    It seems to me that one first must clearly envision the structural changes we have in mind as a correction for what now exists that may not be working in part or entirely. Because planning for the built environment have many stakeholders that must come into agreement, materials sourced and funding accessed. Status quo is easier to understand, even when it is less than desirable. New concepts and thoughts are often feared or at least, met with discomfort, in how to get all the stakeholders on-board.
    I have been pondering if creating a “design program” of “shared values” that leads to design elements (as many in the design field may attempt in their programming phase) that is more expansive, and includes design criteria the elements that support human well-being as a priority, well then, could we then begin to have a responsive built environment that truly supports healed societal hearts for all of us? This is where my thoughts lead me. I am looking for a place to see this actualized as a beginning.

    • Sharif

      says on:
      October 22, 2012 at 4:45 pm


      You hit on many valid points… I’m told of many people who have great ideas for changing things, then get run around in circles by planning boards, bank approval processes, old zoning regulations…

      What would happen if we really DID have the opportunity to “start over”, to start a planning process with a blank sheet of paper?

      As you say, the first step would be to develop and articulate a set of shared values, shared assumptions, shared attitudes… in effect, shared MAPS-2. (For example: just take “Materials”… the number of cities that reject buildings made of strawbale, or cordwood, or rammed earth — not because the materials are in any way un-safe, but just because they are “new”.)

      Getting all the people to the table, including the money people, would be interesting!



  • Puanani

    says on:
    October 22, 2012 at 10:28 am

    I am wondering if your term “attitudes” includes within it the idea of ”values”.

    I agree that we need to change our assumptions, and, we also need to change the values that lead us to make those assumptions. Individuals do not exist in a vacuum; our damaged hearts are not only due to our encounters with those with damaged hearts, our damaged hearts are also the result of living in a damaged society. Our dogged pursuit of the “American dream” is damaging our hearts, our neighborhoods, our cities and our world. When choosing, each of us always makes the best choice available to us at that given moment. From the outside, or in hindsight, it may look like a “bad” choice, but does anyone ever look at their options and say, “I think I’ll choose the thing that will make me the most miserable or have the worst outcome.” I think, the majority of the time, if not all of the time, the answer would be “no”. We need to have enough compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and for others to know that we are all doing our best. Judging whether or not my best or someone else’s best is good enough is not helpful. Instead, we need to look at what is going on in our community that limits people to choosing the least worst option. Yes, let’s look at our assumptions, and, let’s also look at our values.

    • Chuck Willis

      says on:
      October 22, 2012 at 12:46 pm

      Thank You Puanani!

      … for sharing this rich and open-hearted wisdom! Bless You!

    • Sharif

      says on:
      October 22, 2012 at 1:13 pm


      Thanks for your comment. I agree with all you said…

      Technically, no… “attitudes and assumptions” does not include “values”. I talk extensively about values — here’s just one example: Commonway Praxis Values Week 07

      I don’t see these things as separate concepts. They’re all the same thing… but it’s hard to talk about them that way!



  • Lakshmi

    says on:
    October 24, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    This quote “each one of you has the opportunity to become midwives to the birth of a society that works for all” has become my new mantra.
    In a word brilliant,
    Thank you for sharing your many gifts and talents with the world.

  • Funda

    says on:
    November 14, 2012 at 11:05 am

    This is one of the best ones you have written. It is fanuamentdl for a happy, successful life. Most people are not aware that they create the world they live in: The Universe generates the circumstances to confirm that belief. I always say to my kids that if they don’t like something, they need to change their Mind. I’ve seen this principle at work so many times at every day places. For instance, I used to get my car’s oil changed at Jiffy Lube. My expectation is that I will be treated fairly when I do business with people, including Jiffy Lube. In all the times I went there, I never felt ripped off. I knew the terms and I agreed to them. One time I was there waiting for my car to be serviced and I watched as a person who expected to be mistreated was given service. This person was sure she was going to be ripped off when she walked in the door. She was negative sitting in the waiting area. Sure enough, when it came time to pay the bill, there was an altercation and she left feeling ripped off. It was plain as day that the world fit her expectations, the circumstances fit her beliefs. I felt bad for her because I thought how tough it must be going through life thinking you are going to be mistreated and then you think you are. How much nicer to live life thinking that people are good, that I am prosperous and that the Universe is working for my highest good!

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