A man with mental health problems was reunited with his family after being missing for ten years, thanks to the help of a charity which aims to reunite homeless people with their loved ones.
It might be all too easy to believe people living on the streets have been rejected by their family and friends, or that they’ve cut ties with their loved ones for some reason.
However, nonprofit organisation Miracle Messages proves that in numerous cases families want to be reconnected, they just don’t know how, or need assistance to facilitate.
The charity was founded by Kevin Fadler in 2014, and works by offering a helping hand to homeless people who want to re-establish a connection with friends or family.
People from the organisation head out to the streets asking those living there if there’s anyone they’d like to get in contact with. They record a message from the hopeful person, and then set about trying to find the friend or relative it’s meant for.
The program operates out of San Francisco, CA, but has helped people reconnect across the US, and even in countries outside of the US.
With the help of 40 regular volunteers, and a further closed group of 1,300 volunteers who solve cases collaboratively on Facebook, the organisation has reunited 204 families to date.
UNILAD spoke to Jessica Donig, executive director of Miracle Messages, about how people can become disconnected from those most important to them.
She explained there are a number of reasons people lose touch, including digital access barriers, bureaucratic barriers, economic dislocation, and emotional barriers, such as fear and shame.
People experiencing homelessness just don’t have great access to digital tools. Many people experiencing homelessness don’t have consistent access to a phone or a computer, and they lose touch because they don’t know how to access information.
Most service providers cannot confirm or deny whether a person experiencing homelessness is receiving services at a given facility or service center.
Given the fact that people who are experiencing homelessness don’t have a consistent mailing address and often don’t have a consistent phone number, this barrier can lead to disconnection.
Economic dislocation causes people to move around, which may cause their contact information to change. Combined with the two factors above, this can lead to disconnection.
Many people experiencing homelessness are ashamed, embarrassed or fearful of reaching out. Some may have had disputes that led to disconnection, and don’t know how their loved ones will respond if they try to reach out.
With the help of Miracle Messages, homeless people have the opportunity to try and reconnect with the people who mean most to them.
When their message has been recorded, ‘digital detectives’ from Miracle Messages trawl the internet in an attempt to find the recipient.
Describing the process, Jessica said:
After a digital detective takes the case and reviews the information, they start using their online detective skills to try to find an online profile for the loved one.
Detectives use whitepages premium, Facebook searches, ancestry.com, and others to scour the internet for a way to deliver the message to the loved one.
This is exactly what happened with 37-year-old Laveta Carney and her uncle Timothy, who suddenly disappeared following the death of his mother.
Timothy has mental health problems; when his mum passed away he walked out of their Chicago house and never came back. Laveta explained her uncle had a way of forgetting things, and that his thoughts are sometimes incorrect or completely made up, suggesting he can get confused easily.
Laveta and her mother tried to find the missing man, searching the streets, shelters, hospitals, and jails, but for years they had no luck.
The 37-year-old told UNILAD she and her mother were devastated every time they heard of an unknown ‘John Doe’ passing away, in case it was Timothy.
I was in the military so I couldn’t look for him like I wanted to, but still every time I came home or talked to my mom I would ask her if they found him or heard from him.
It was devastating because every time we heard of a John Doe being found dead we didn’t know what to think.
Then, one day in 2017, Laveta’s mother received a Facebook message from the digital detectives at Miracle Messages. After being disconnected from Timothy for over 10 years, the stunned woman couldn’t believe he’d really been found – she thought the message was a joke.
When I got home we called the number together. Even then we thought it was someone playing games, because still we hadn’t talked to Timothy or even had any proof they knew where he was.
After a couple days we asked if they could allow us to talk to him and they told us that they would try once he came in.
Somehow, Timothy found himself over 2,000 miles away in California, where he was living on the streets. Laveta explained he was able to remember some things when he put his mind to it, so luckily Timothy was able to give enough information to Miracle Messages to allow them to track down his family.
He sent a message through the charity, simply telling his relatives he wanted to come home.
Miracle Messages organised for Timothy to return to Chicago on a bus, but as soon as he was left to his own devices, the 54-year-old wandered off again.
Laveta quickly got in touch with the charity, who shared the news of the missing man and sent people out to look for him. Thankfully they tracked him down, and Laveta decided to travel to California to pick him up herself.
Remembering their reunion, she told UNILAD:
He remembered me. I was in awe, I couldn’t believe he made it and was alive.
I was overcome with thanks.
Although life is still a struggle for Timothy, he is now living with Laveta and her mother, who are able to look after him and track him down when he wanders off.
Life is hard for both him and us, because the whole time he was on the street no one seemed to notice he had mental health issues, so being without his medication and living on the street for so long affected him badly.
Everyday is a struggle, he still wanders off and at times still lives as if he is homeless. We’ve had to pick him up from the hospital and police stations, and the police at times have dropped him off at home.
It’s hard, but he is home.
Two years after reuniting them, Miracle Messages still check up on Timothy and his family.
Laveta expressed how grateful she is to the charity, saying:
Timothy’s mental health conditions make everyday a challenge, and it’s hard, but him being able to be around family without judgement and with unconditional love is important.
We cherish family and we do what we need to do to help one another. Without Miracle Messages we would still be looking, hope silently slipping away as time goes by.
Timothy was lost for almost 15 years. The search is over and he is home, all because someone other than us cared.
Someone took it upon themselves to help someone they don’t know find their family. Someone put someone else first, and that someone is Miracle Messages.
Ben HindsBen reunited with his brother Rusty after being separated for years. #1minutemiracles When we spoke to Ben he wanted to apologise to his family for the distance he put between them and was longing to reach out to them. His brother Rusty, after seeing the video, flew from Houston to San Francisco, on a whim, to find him and he did. They were reunited and Ben moved home with his family and changed his life in pursuit of self care. #miraclemessages #homeless #reunited #EveryoneIsSomeonesSomebody
Posted by Miracle Messages on Wednesday, 4 July 2018
Thanks to the help of the selfless charity, Timothy was able to get off the streets. While admittedly not all of Miracle Messages’ cases end with such success, 82 per cent of the messages the charity sends to families are positively received, with the recipient grateful for the opportunity to reconnect.
Jessica explained that often when people resort to living on the streets, they lose their ‘social home’ as well as their physical housing. A ‘social home’ is our support system; our sense of belonging, which can often be found in friends and family.
The executive director said:
Over time, this loss of a social support system has all sorts of negative impacts on a person’s sense of possibility, making it more difficult for them to form relationships, accept help, realize goals, maintain their well-being, and (yes) find stable housing.
Of course, basic needs like food, water, shelter, clothing, and hygiene are essential. But we humans are complex – we also need to feel loved, to feel like we belong, to feel dignity and respect. We need community.
In the words of one homeless client, ‘I never realized I was homeless when I lost my housing, only when I lost my family and friends.’
By giving homeless people the opportunity to reconnect with their loved ones, Miracle Messages has seen 34 people get off the streets, while others have gone into recovery, started jobs, improved their physical health, and gained hope thanks to their renewed connections.
But Jessica emphasised the charity doesn’t only work to reconnect homeless people with their families; it also allows those living on the streets to tell their stories.
Miracle Messages gives housed people the opportunity to hear homeless individuals speak in their own words about who they are and who they love.
Just finished giving out birthday hugs, gift cards & offering our homeless neighbors in San Diego the opportunity to record @MiracleMessages to reconnect with their loved ones! Recorded 3 MMs: Jessica to her sister, Rita to her adult kids & Daniel to his birth parents. #NAEH2019 pic.twitter.com/WrpIiBmHYj
— Kevin F. Adler (@kevinfadler) February 21, 2019
The very act of listening to a person tell their story, and thinking of that person as someone’s mother, father, sister, brother, or best friend, begins the process of shattering the stigmas around homelessness.
If people engaged with their homeless neighbours as people, saw them as ‘someone’s somebodies’ and embraced them as part of the community, that would be a huge step.
The work the charity does is truly vital. All too often, assumptions are made about people living on the streets, with stigmas suggesting they’re disconnected through some fault of their own. However, homeless people have important relationships with others, just like everyone else, even if they have lost contact with them.
Miracle Messages helps to rebuild people’s social homes, offering a support network which could end up changing their life for good.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to [email protected]