Our Community Blog: Nick Zullo, Director, Family Promise of Greater Helena, “Live in Stillness”

January 23, 2017

Nick Zullo

“Perspective is the way we see things when we look at them from a certain distance, and it allows us to appreciate their true value.”

These words were spoken by Rafael Eduardo Pino. A native of Venezuela, he said he visited the Amazon jungle in Leticia, Columbia, near the borders of Brazil and Peru and that it was “like being in a forest and having a tree in front of you. Unless you step back a little, you will not be able to appreciate what a forest really is.” He was “not able to appreciate the magnitude of the Amazon until (he) flew over it and gained perspective.”

As we embark upon our service to homeless families in 2017, let us gain the kind of perspective that will allow us to “live in stillness but (serve) with incredible urgency” (adapted from a statement of Rem Koolhaas, a world renowned architectural theorist).

Our perspective on homelessness must include an understanding of family homelessness as a sub-set of the total homeless population. Homelessness has continued to grow since the early 1980’s and, in particular,  family homelessness.

In fact, Family Promise was started in the 1980’s when Karen Olson, founder of the movement to eradicate family homelessness, literally saw homelessness emerging on the streets in New York while going to work daily. She decided to do something about it. From those early efforts, she developed the Family Promise model of serving children and their families overcoming homelessness. That concept, of course, was designed to enlist and engage people of faith – and their churches – that have an incredible sense for service. Affiliates were launched across the country as interfaith hospitality networks.

As a national movement, can we maintain our pace in 2017? To live in stillness and serve with urgency, we may need to refresh our perspective. Mr. Pino helps us understand the kind of perspective needed. He shared an experience in his own home with his family doing jigsaw puzzles. We’ve all done a puzzle with our children. They contain many small pieces. One of the children “used to focus on the individual pieces, and when one did not fit in the place where he thought it should, he would become angry and assume it was no good and want to throw it away. He finally learned to do the puzzle when he understood that each small piece had its place in the final picture, even when he did not know where it fit at a given moment.”

This is one way of understanding family homelessness and our role in addressing it. There are numerous pieces of the puzzle. We may not understand each of its parts separately, but we can “step back a little” and try to bring the entire picture into focus. This allows us to maintain a positive, high regard for the homeless families we serve. What follows are brief answers to three questions that will sharpen our focus in 2017 and allow us to live in stillness but serve with incredible urgency…

How is homelessness defined?

This month, the annual count of homelessness will be conducted in all of our Affiliate communities. This “point in time” survey results in an Annual Assessment Report to Congress on homelessness by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. We have a role to play in that count.
Homelessness is more than being  without a residence. It is a spectrum of circumstances including not only the absence of shelter but also extremely poor living conditions. One couple, expecting their first child, came to Family Promise because the only residence they could afford was in a dangerously infested environment of illicit drug trafficking. They couldn’t bear to bring their child up in such a place and improved their living conditions through changing their lives in Family Promise. The homeless survey helps to assess the broad circumstances of homelessness. These circumstances go beyond what the average person might think, i.e., a stereotypical view of vagrancy.


The experience of being destitute and homeless doesn’t usually happen overnight either. It is the culmination of cascading events and circumstances due to economic hardship, isolation from resources and a lack of supportive connections. Does anyone survive that has no one that cares for them?

Why does family homelessness exist?

Unfortunately when children are born into their family’s homeless predicament, depravation becomes the life they know. We have witnessed it all too often.


Why do children and their families in America in 2017 suffer the harsh reality of family homelessness and the depravation of the basic amenities the rest of us enjoy? The lack of affordable housing is a basic cause of homelessness, of course, and studies often emphasize various causal terms and historical events leading to it, such as deindustrialization. On a national scale, decline in manufacturing (deindustrialization) and a series of economic recessions resulted in rising unemployment levels and higher rates of poverty. Referring again to the emerging homelessness of the 1980’s, in 1982, 15 percent of the U.S. population – that’s 34 million people – was living below the poverty line. Remember how someone in your family (maybe you) said they were the first generation to graduate from college? Now, thirty years since the sinews of poverty in the 1980’s, some of those we serve are realizing they are the first generation to graduate from homelessness!

When will family homelessness end?

In Family Promise, we have seen children happily emerge from homelessness who have had no living relative that has not known poverty. They could be part of the first generation to know what sustainable independence is – and maybe the first to graduate from college as well!

The end of family homelessness will happen  because it has happened, family after family, in Affiliates across the country, like ours here in Greater Helena, Montana.  Hundreds of faithful volunteers in Family Promise are the heroes that made all of this possible!

In conclusion, each child and each parent we serve is a key piece of the puzzle. We need them. Each volunteer, each donor, every congregation, corporation and social service agency is a piece of the puzzle. We need them too. A  perspective on the historical and societal causes of homelessness helps us to hold blameless and value the people we serve. They know their accountability begins upon entering Family Promise and their accomplishments are impressive. Our focus on the Family Promise model of success in helping families attain sustainable independence allows us to live in stillness while continuing the pace of incredible service!

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