Special Project: Toward a Better Understanding of Homelessness


Project Overview

A documentary & community conversation in support of improved ways to understand, think about & respond to the complexities of homelessness as a community.

Our “Toward a Better Understanding of Homelessness” public philosophy project is a response to growing unhoused populations at home & abroad, and a more general and important call to adequately understand the multi-faceted nature & complexity of homelessness.  At its core, the project is an invitation to carefully reflect on these complexities and an opportunity for improved ways of thinking and responding together.

While inquiries into homelessness are not new, making philosophy central (both in terms of approach and questions asked/explored) can be a helpful lens and bring to the fore important considerations for both those experiencing homelessness and those responding to it.  

Project Nuts & Bolts

  • Does not concern itself with the question “Should we care?” (about homelessness, about our unsheltered neighbors, about the community).  Our project takes it as a given that we should care and instead focuses on the question “How do we care?” 
  • Holds that the ways in which each of us respond to this question and what that care will or should look like is informed by a number of factors, including our own experiences with and assumptions about homelessness and conceptions of justice, fairness, rights and responsibilities, accountability, compassion, place, and community.
  • Maintains that examining these assumptions and conceptions head on will help move us toward a better understanding of homelessness & improved ways of thinking and responding together as a community.
  • Utilizes philosophy (in structure and approach) as means by which to do this.
  • Has an objective aim to facilitate critical thinking about our thinking about homelessness. As such, it does not advocate for or against particular positions, but rather offers a platform for examining and better understanding our (and others’) experiences, beliefs, motivations, perspectives, and reasoning relative to the question “how do we care?”, as well as the nature of homelessness and some of the factors, agents, limitations, and opportunities involved in responding to it. 


Interviews and recordings will take place in the summer of 2024 through late Spring/early Summer 2025, film creation & editing in the Summer of 2025, and the film screening & community discussion in Fall of 2025.​


Interviews & recordings (and the subsequent documentary film & community conversation) will be structured around a series of philosophical questions aimed at providing anchoring entry points & platforms for critically examining our thinking about homelessness. It facilitates and strives for: clarity (of both the issue at hand, conceptions of, and motivations for various responses to homelessness); a deeper understanding of our own perspectives & reasoning (and that of others); a focused aperture to better apprehend the complex and nuanced nature of homelessness, and some of the factors, agents, limitations, and opportunities involved in responding to it, and ideally; a “common ground bridge” to more adequately think about and address homelessness.

Background & Value

The project builds on a three-part community workshop series we conducted in 2018 (on the moral dimensions of homelessness), a KTVH feature on homeless camps, Helena’s Rough Sleepers project in 2023, ongoing city hall/commission discussions about emergency shelters & policy, and an informational film called “Why Should I Care?: Homelessness in Helena” by Helena Civic Television (who will also be partnering with us for our project).  It also builds on some of the community measures that other cities have employed and/or considered, as well (e.g., Missoula libraryHouston & San DiegoTent cities across America (history).  

Consisting of three-parts, “Toward a Better Understanding of Homelessness” involves interviews and recordings (which will be turned into a documentary film), a film screening, and a community discussion.  A broad-range of perspectives will be explored including, first and foremost, testimonials from the unhoused and those experiencing transitional housing, as well as social workers, public officials, community members, developers, advocates, urban designers/planners, business owners, homeowners/renters, teachers, scholars, law enforcement, faith communities, and more. 

The value of our project stems from its unique emphasis on philosophy. In addition to important, front-facing variables that typically come up in discussions and thinking about homelessness (e.g., housing shortages, resources, mental/physical wellness, safety, aesthetics, location, other), there are also deeply philosophical variables at play which are hinted at implicitly, but rarely explored head on.  Conceptions of justice, accountability, care, fairness, rights, responsibilities, community, place, and more all lurk in the background and inform our thinking in various ways.  

That the philosophical has not been an explicit focus in discussions about homelessness is unsurprising given that its front-facing variables are so immediate and many. But not doing so does a disservice. Bringing philosophy to the fore is an important step & supplement to existing conversations.

Special Note for this Project

Given the nature of this documentary project, we plan to take extra precautions to proceed from a place of respect, care, and thoughtfulness for all those involved, making sure to honor the anonymity and privacy wishes of those who wish to participate but want to do so anonymously. In addition, special care will be taken in terms of navigating the vulnerability of those most immediately affected by homelessness (i.e., unsheltered populations) in ways that honor them as valuable members OF the community.

Project Purpose

Our “Toward a Better Understanding of Homelessness” public philosophy project serves an important role in our thinking about, understanding of, and responses to homelessness.  While inquiries into homelessness are numerous, there is a dearth of focus on the philosophical variables in play.  Our project aims to rectify this by making philosophy central and explicit.

With this in mind, the purpose of our project is objective. Its aim is to facilitate critical thinking about our thinking about homelessness. As such, it does not advocate for or against particular positions, but rather offers a platform for examining and better understanding our (and others’) experiences, beliefs, motivations, perspectives, and reasoning relative to the question “how do we care?”, as well as the nature of homelessness and factors, agents, limitations, and opportunities involved in responding to it.

Additionally, and very much embedded in our approach to and practice of philosophy in the community, we believe that philosophy has the ability to inspire and transform.  This is perhaps most notably achieved – at least with projects of this sort – when philosophy can reveal and invite us into that shared space or common ground of our humanity.  In this way, in terms of scope and structure, an added purpose of our project is to cultivate a sense of togetherness and provide a bridge for thinking about and addressing homelessness in ways that can enrich, inspire, and transform us a community.


Marisa Diaz-Waian

Marisa Diaz-Waian

Program Director

About Marisa

Marisa Diaz-Waian is community philosopher, educator and Founder & Director of Merlin CCC. A “generalist” by nature, training, and practice, she has an M.A. in Philosophy from San Diego State University (Summa Cum Laude), serves on the board & education committee for The Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization, and is a speaker for Humanities Montana.

She is also an NEH scholar, has philosophical practitioner credentials in Logic-Based Therapy, is a volunteer for the U.S. LBT Institute of Critical Thinking & the National Philosophical Counseling Association, a published author and co-author of numerous scholarly works, and an (occasional) Adjunct Philosophy Instructor at Carroll College in Helena, MT.

Born in Santa Monica, CA, Marisa was a high school & collegiate scholar-athlete. She spent the majority of her formative years along the coastlines of Southern & Northern California, exploring tidepools, playing basketball and volleyball, body surfing, and getting into good-hearted mischief.  As she grew older, Ennis, Bozeman & Helena, MT became regular stomping grounds.  Her summers were frequently spent fly fishing, bird watching & “wandering into the great wide open” with her late father (and buddy), Lee. B. Waian.

“The first person to introduce me to philosophy was my poppa. We would spend hours talking shop — holding ideas up against the light of reason, taking them apart & putting them back together again…having fun exploring the terrain. But it was more than just that.  My father was a man who put his (& others’) ideas to the test…who walked the walk….and who showed me (by virtue of who he was) that thought & action (must)  go hand-in-hand…That talk (thought, feeling) is not enough…we must also strive to do & be.  Over the years, the philosophy-seeds that he & countless others in my life have helped to sow & nurture, took shape…ultimately resulting in the formation of Merlin CCC.  I am grateful and elated to be part of such an amazing process…and feel passionately about the power of philosophy to transform & inspire in each of us…grace, humility, beauty & strength.” — Marisa

An active member of the Helena community, Marisa lives off-grid and happily “hangs her hat” at Merlin Nature Preserve, where she serves as its resident-steward.

Marisa has a special interest in ethics & ancient philosophy, as well as existentialism, humor, and “fuzzy” things at the intersection of philosophy and psychology.  (She also really loves wolves, the ocean, art, jazz, basketball, dancing, laughing, reggae, and doing things outside of the box).

Her work focuses on philosophy in the community, across all ages and backgrounds, and frequently involves an interdisciplinary, environmental, and intergenerational bent.

Marisa can be reached at [email protected] or via phone at #406-439-5788 (Cell) or #406-502-2122 (Office).

Mitchell Conway

Mitchell Conway

Program Co-Director

About Mitchell

Mitchell Conway is a Community Philosopher at Merlin CCC, an adjunct philosophy instructor at Carroll College, a branch facilitator/educator at Cottonwood ALC, and serves on the Academic Advisory Board & Questions? journal committee for The Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization.

A student of philosophy, a theater maker, and a teacher who cares ardently about empowering young learners, his work has often been an interweaving of education, story, and inquiry. At the BIRD Theatre in Tottori, Japan, among other productions, he collaborated with Korean group TUIDA to create The Poetry Class about the colonial period and Pacific war; he also directed students at Kei Ai High School in Romeo & Juliet. Using applied theater, he performed with Village Playback Theatre creating improvisations from audience members’ personal stories, and for a three-month residency he taught embodied methods of community dialogue through the Colombo Americano in Medellin, Colombia. He has also taught theater to elementary school students at 82nd St. Academics and middle school students at Summer Institute for the Gifted.

For a year, Mitchell taught at the English Immersion Program in Umphium Mai refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border using a curriculum based in literature and critical thinking. With the New York Foundling at Queens College, he supervised the academic component of The Dorm Project, a program supporting youth in foster care through college.

Mitchell has a Bachelor’s degree in Theater from Skidmore College and a Master’s degree in Philosophy & Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Mitch has recently presented at the North Eastern Philosophy of Education Society (NEPES) and Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) conferences. He also relishes walking in the forest.

Mitchell helps to facilitate and design several of Merlin CCC’s philosophy in the community programs, including programs for youth.

Mitchell can be reached at [email protected].

David Nowakowski

David Nowakowski

Program Assistant

About David

David Nowakowski is as a community philosopher and educator in the Helena area whose professional work is dedicated to helping people of all ages and backgrounds access, understand, and apply the traditions of ancient philosophy to their own lives.  A lover of philosophy and the great outdoors, David moved to Helena (originally from Pennsylvania) in 2019 to build his consulting practice and serve as a Community Philosopher & Advisor for Merlin CCC, as well as Senior Mentor for scholars in the Merlin Fellowship Program.

David began studying ancient philosophies and classical languages in 2001, and has continued ever since.  A scholar of the philosophical traditions of the ancient Mediterranean (Greece, Rome, and North Africa) and of the Indian subcontinent, reading Sanskrit, Latin, and classical Greek, he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 2014.  His work has appeared in a variety of scholarly journals, including Philosophy East & West, Asian Philosophy, and the Journal of Indian Philosophy; as well as in presentations to academic audiences at Harvard, Columbia University, the University of Toronto, Yale-NUS College in Singapore, and elsewhere.

After half a decade teaching at liberal arts colleges in the northeast, David chose to leave the academy in order to focus his energies on the transformative value of these ancient philosophical and spiritual traditions in his own life and practice, and on building new systems of education and community learning that will make this rich heritage alive and available to others.

A hermit by nature and by committed choice, he balances contemplative solitude with his active work in teaching, counseling, and the healing arts.  We are elated to be collaborating with David on our philosophy in the community activities, fellowships, and other Merlin projects.

David can be reached at [email protected] or via his personal website.

Jeanie Warden

Jeanie Warden


About Jeanie

Jeanie Warden is a top-notch videographer and editor at Helena Civic Television.  A graduate of Helena High who studied at the University of Montana, Jeanie’s work is community-oriented and engaging.  “Rodney Street is…” — her latest documentary involvement, in collaboration with The Myrna Loy & the City of Helena — received accolades and has continued to generate discussion and pride in the community.  More details to be added soon…

Kathleen O'Brien Thompson

Kathleen O'Brien Thompson


About Kathleen

Kathleen O’Brien Thompson is the founder & president of Professional Punch Marketing — a full-service marketing & design firm. With over 15 years of diverse experience in business development, marketing, management, professional writing, and client relationships, Kathleen is a skilled developer of broad-based coalitions and an advocate of promoting and doing good in the world.  Analytical and possessing critical interviewing skills developed during her tenure in market research, she specializes in strategic communication consulting and the creation of polished, relevant content.  She has worked with AMLAW 100 firms, Fortune 500 companies, Kellogg’s, American Idol, United Way, Fresh Start Women’s Foundation, RightCare Foundaton, and more.  Kathleen graduated Summa Cum Laude and holds a Bachelor’s degree in English & Communications.  Kathleen can be reached at [email protected]



Merlin CCC
A Community Philosophy Organization
119 Reeder’s Alley, Helena MT 59601
PO Box 2034, Helena MT 59624
Tax ID/EIN: 47-1479303


Marisa Diaz-Waian
Founder/Director (Merlin CCC)
Tel: 406.502.2122
Cell: 406.439.5788
[email protected]

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For more information or to donate by check, please contact the program director.

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