After 18 years, had they finally found him?
Ashley Roberts of Ravenna, Ohio, and her brother Bradley Meade had gotten a lead on the whereabouts of their father, Donald Meade, who vanished from their lives in 1999.
In April, she pulled out her phone and with a few keystrokes, “Bam!” she recalls. “It popped up.”
She and her brother found themselves looking at a 2015 article about Meade in Voice of OC. In it, Meade was described as a once-homeless denizen of the Santa Ana Civic Center now living in a Fullerton apartment.
They read about their father’s battles with alcoholism, homelessness and illness, including bypass surgery, cancer and heart disease. They stared at the picture, which showed a weathered face, blue eyes and gray hair with remnants of auburn in his mustache.
No question it was their father.
“He still looks like dad,” Roberts told her brother.
A few days later, she contacted the Illumination Foundation, a Stanton nonprofit that had helped Meade through his medical issues and arranged for his housing. She gave the foundation her number to pass on to Meade, and then she waited.
The next day, Allison Moore of the foundation broke the news to Meade that his kids had found him.
“He was shaking. I was shaking,” Moore recalls.
She gave Meade the number.
He dialed. When Roberts saw a call from California on her phone, she thought it was the foundation and casually picked up.
How do you start a conversation 18 years in the making?
One sentence at a time, it turns out.
He began by saying, “Ashley, this is your dad,” she recalls.
She immediately recognized his voice.
It was a beginning.
How Meade hit rock bottom
Meade, now 56, is a soft-spoken guy with a humble demeanor. He’s one of 14 children born into a hardscrabble life in Kenton, Ohio, two and a half hours southwest of Cleveland.
Growing up, the family kept chickens and pigs, and disobedience was met with strict physical punishments. Meade’s mother died when he was 12, which is the age when he began abusing alcohol.
He married young, at 19, served in the Ohio National Guard and worked in a foundry in Tiffin, Ohio, before joining the U.S. Army.
His first marriage broke up after a few years, and he remarried and had two more daughters before marrying a third time and becoming a stepfather to four more children.
When he left Ohio in the mid-to-late ’90s, he began traveling to far-flung locations, including Louisiana, Montana, California and Florida, working in different capacities.
Already an alcoholic, he took up crack cocaine. During his travels, he sometimes lacked for proper housing, and so he camped or made unorthodox arrangements, such as sleeping in a guesthouse owned by a church for which he did upkeep in the Florida Keys.
Meanwhile, his health was declining.
He had a quadruple heart bypass in 2010, after which he was unable to work. He came to California, finding his way to Santa Ana. By this time he received a regular check for disability. Still, he slept on the grounds of the Civic Center, often bedding down near the entrance to the Council Chambers and rising before dawn to avoid tickets.
By 2015 his health declined further; sometimes his friends living in the Civic Center had to call 911 when he was too ill to move, leading to hospitalizations for his heart problems as well as a diagnosis of bladder cancer.
Living on the streets had taken a toll on his mental health as well as physical strength, says Paul Leon, CEO and founder of the Illumination Foundation.
“When we first met Donald, if I had to give him a percentage to survive, I would say 19%,” Leon says. “He had chronic medical and mental health issues. He was just rock bottom.”
Illness, addiction and daily survival challenges routinely compromise the physical and mental health of the chronically homeless, for whom life expectancy is somewhere between 42 and 52.
Opioid abuse has contributed to shorter lifespans, but so have routine illnesses — heart disease and cancer — except that homeless people tend to die of them 20 years ahead of schedule.
Meade’s precarious health made him a candidate for recuperative care, which places ill homeless patients in a rehabilitative setting. Case managers help stabilize the recipient and in some cases obtain benefits such as housing vouchers or low-income medical care.
After six months in recuperative care, Meade was placed in the apartment where he currently lives with his dog, Scrappy. Foundation staffers helped him navigate medical appointments, medicines and rides to doctor visits.
But even as he was on the mend, he was haunted by what he had lost. He wondered more and more about his children: had they forgotten about him, would he see them again?
Facing his own regrets was especially painful.
“I chose alcohol and drugs over my family,” he says plainly.
In late 2016 he grew so despondent that he tried to kill himself; it wasn’t the first time. He faced another health setback when he underwent triple bypass heart surgery earlier this year. Doctors are monitoring his cancer for the moment.
An unexpected homecoming
After Meade called Roberts this spring, he reconnected with his four biological children and four stepchildren, talking with some of them by telephone every day.
Recently, Meade did something he couldn’t have foreseen during his most despairing moments less than a year ago: he flew to Ohio to spend time with his children and to meet his five grandchildren. If all goes well during the 12-day visit, he may even move home for good.
But to do that he’ll have to build trust and acknowledge the pain caused by his absence.
He’s well aware that his family needs him to own up.
“You have to expect some criticism and take it like a man,” he says.
Meade’s eldest daughter, Roberts, has been frank during their telephone conversations leading up to the visit.
“I told him, ‘You missed so much of our lives.’ I’m keeping you at arm’s length,” she says. “I spoke my mind. I had to. That’s a chapter I needed to close.”
Meade’s daughter from his second marriage, Amanda Sweeney, was fortunate to have been raised by a loving stepfather. But she was still hurt that her biological father was not in her life.
When she found out he was looking to reconnect this past spring, “I had every intention of hating him and not forgiving him or ever talking to him again,” she says.
Upon getting Meade’s number, “My first thought was, yes, I’m going to go off and cuss him out.”
But as soon as they began speaking, he apologized fully and asked respectfully if she would hear him out. A connection was born and has grown stronger with regular telephone calls.
The staff at the foundation is anticipating a happy ending but nonetheless has sought to manage his expectations for the Ohio visit, which could be stressful, says Leon, whose organization has helped arrange several reunifications between homeless people and their families, some as far away as Mexico and Russia.
“We let Don know we’re going to still support him if things don’t go right, but from conversations with him, it sounds like a positive thing,” Leon says. “They really want to meet him.”
Stepdaughter Kristina Wampler can’t wait. She has a fishing trip planned for him, which seems only right since he taught her how to fish.
“I hope he feels enough love to want to come back home. I would want nothing more than for him to be a part of our lives again,” says the now 33-year-old. “People make mistakes,” she adds. “And people learn from their mistakes.”
Editor’s Note: The Illumination Foundation created a GoFundMe page for anyone who would like to contribute to Meade’s expenses related to his visit: www.gofundme.com/DonsFamilyReunion.
This story was reported by Voice of OC, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, as part of a publishing agreement with TimesOC.