Nonprofit helps reunite homeless with family, friends through digital detective work
The path out of homelessness could begin with a single phone call to the right person.
Finding that person’s number, however, can be a challenge for someone on the street or in a shelter with few resources, little time for research and possible personal issues.
That’s where the San Francisco-based nonprofit Miracle Messages comes in.
“There’s a mix of digital illiteracy and a lack of access to technology, along with these emotional barriers like the shame of being homeless, that leads to this perfect storm that can keep people on the street,” said Kevin Adler, founder and CEO of Miracle Messages.
The small nonprofit has a team of volunteers that includes retired private investigators who know how to find people, often through internet searches that can be as simple as doing searches on Whitepages Premium or Facebook.
Their work has led to about 200 reunions in the last four years, according to the group’s website. People write text messages or record short videos directed at whomever they are seeking, and Miracle Messages team members try to track that person down to pass along the greetings.
Adler and a few others from Miracle Messages were in San Diego in late February to attend the National Alliance to End Homeless conference. While in town, he, a videographer and his friend Tim Schwartz went to a neighborhood known to have a large homeless population.
Arriving on the corner of 17th Street and Imperial Avenue on a cold and damp morning Feb. 21, Schwartz immediately turned heads with his suit, a loud black outfit covered in graphics from a Pac-Man game. He celebrates friends’ birthdays by giving hugs to strangers in public, and Adler was turning 34 this day.
He caught the attention of Rita Chambers, 56, as she walked past pushing a shopping cart filled with her belongings and dog, Eddie. After hearing of Miracle Messages’ mission, she began to tear up and told Adler she had not seen her three children in years, including a son who had been adopted as an infant.
“Can you help me find him?” she pleaded.
Later that morning, they met another homeless person who said he was looking for his birth parents. Adler said they are still working on his and Chambers’ cases, but dealing with adoption agencies can be especially challenging.
They had better luck with Jessica Montiero, who said she had not seen her sister, Sonja, in four years.
“This one was pretty easy,” Adler said. “A couple of things were in place. It’s an easy name to look up because it’s not that common. We had a sense that there was no bad blood between them, just someone moving away.”
A few days later, a Facebook search found Sonja in Phoenix. She replied that she would love to see her sister again.
While a Facebook search doesn’t seem like the most elaborate detective work, Adler said that sometimes the hectic life of homelessness can be an obstacle to doing what other people may see as simple tasks.
“You don’t know where you’re going to go to the bathroom; you don’t know where you’re going to sleep,” he said. “Imagine your house gets flooded or there was an earthquake, and that’s every single night. You wouldn’t have the wherewithal to go to the library and do detective work.”
Adler said he was inspired to create Miracle Messages because of his late Uncle Mark, who had mental health problems and was homeless on and off for 30 years.
After talking with homeless people in San Francisco, Adler realized many experience what he calls relational poverty, meaning they lack a social support network of family and friends.
He began asking homeless people if they had a family member or friend they’d like to reconnect with, and he met a man named Jeffrey who said he hadn’t seen his family in 20 years.
“He recorded a message, and I got home that night and found a Facebook group connected to his hometown in Pennsylvania,” Adler said. He posted the video.
“Within an hour, it was shared hundreds of times and made the local news that night,” he said. “Comments started coming in. ‘Hey, I went to high school with Jeffrey. I’m in construction. Does he need a job?’ ”
Adler quit his job and focused on creating Miracle Messages.
The nonprofit has partnered with Union Square Business Improvement District in San Francisco and recently began working with the city of Riverside. Adler said the nonprofit is working on a mobile app to create messages that will be uploaded to a database.
Homeless people who are searching for someone are asked to call (800) MISS-YOU. Friends and family members who are looking for someone they believe is homeless can fill out an online form at miraclemessages.org/findthem. About 700 people and 150 families are in the database.
The organization also offers free online classes twice a week for people to learn to do digital detective work and homeless outreach. Adler said there are volunteers across the country trying to create reunions through Miracle Messages.
“Our mantra is ‘Everyone is someone’s somebody,’ ” he said.
Gary Warth writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Warth writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.