Uncle Mark was someone who remembered everyone’s birthday, and was always a special guest at Thanksgiving and Christmas. After dinner, Kevin Adler’s father would drop off his brother at the bus station, and Mark would return to his home — at a halfway house in another city.
Sometimes the family would lose touch with his uncle, who suffered from schizophrenia, for long stretches. One year, Mark didn’t come over for the holidays. “We found out that he had passed away. He was 50 years old,” Adler said.
Ten years later, Adler visited his uncle’s grave in Santa Cruz, California, with his father and realized the gravesite didn’t convey the animated man he had known. “And yet, I’m going to go back in the car, pull out my smartphone and see status updates from every acquaintance I’ve ever met,” he said.
He started thinking about ways to ensure that people who spend part of their lives homeless wouldn’t be forgotten.
Around the same time, Adler learned about a project asking people to portray their idea of Jesus through art. The technology lover instead asked himself, “How would Jesus use a smartphone? How would Jesus use a GoPro camera?”
For one year, Adler equipped homeless people with GoPro cameras and invited them to narrate their experiences. Through their perspectives, he gained a profound insight.
One homeless man said, “You know, I never realized I was homeless when I lost my housing, only when I lost my family and friends.” Adler began asking the homeless community in the San Francisco area if they would like to reconnect with their loved ones and often they said yes, but they didn’t know how.
So he started a service called Miracle Messages in 2014, in which someone living on the streets or in homeless shelters can tape a video message describing their long-lost relatives. A team of volunteers scour the Internet, and if the relatives are willing, they make the connection.
The Bay Area nonprofit’s mission is to “end relational poverty on our streets,” and their mantra: “Everyone is someone’s somebody.”
The group’s YouTube channel displays videos of those without a home reaching out to family members, including their mothers, fathers and their own children.
In one video message, Ambrosia Stricker was hoping to find her father. After recording her video, she reconnected with her father and they continue to talk by phone, the group reports.
If someone is too shy to make a video, the person can call the 1-800-MISS-YOU hotline instead and speak to an operator. Alternatively, participants can fill out paper or online forms. “We do our best to respect their wishes” for privacy, Adler said.
The group also respects the wishes of the relatives. “We do a double opt-in” to acquire consent on both sides, he said. “When we find the loved ones, if they choose not to reconnect for whatever reason, we don’t reveal their contact information. We just say, ‘The message was declined.’”
But most efforts to reach out yield positive results. His organization has made more than 160 connections so far with a team of more than 1,000 Internet “detectives” helping re-establish ties.
Now, Adler is working to replicate his model in other cities, engaging caseworkers and social workers as part of the process. “There’s a lot of nuance to this work. It could be done really poorly, exploitatively, voyeuristically,” he said. “But it also can be done really well.”
View more stories about people working to make a difference in our Agents for Change series.