Whenever Timothy could get someone to listen to him, he would give that person a phone number. That number, Timothy thought, would reach his family back in Chicago.
But that number never worked for anyone who tried it.
Then, Timothy, who was living in St. Anthony’s, a homeless shelter in San Francisco, met a volunteer from Miracle Messages. The volunteer took the phone number — which turned out to be incorrect — a message and all the information Timothy could remember about his family living back east.
The volunteer found a Whitepages listing for Timothy’s sister, wrote her a letter and waited.
Within a week, Timothy’s family responded. Within three weeks, Timothy was on a bus home.
Timothy’s family was ecstatic about having him home again. “We cherish family and we do what we need to do to help one another,” Laveta Carney, Timothy’s niece, told UNILAD. “Without Miracle Messages, we would still be looking, hope silently slipping away as time goes by.”
Miracle Messages is a nonprofit “reunion service” that reconnects people experiencing homelessness with their loved ones. The nonprofit sends volunteers out to record messages through video, audio and text, and with the help of volunteer online “detectives,” finds and shares those messages with loved ones.
There are over half a million homeless people in the United States, and a variety of ways people who experience homelessness lose touch with loved ones. It might be something as straightforward as a misplaced cellphone. Sometimes feelings of shame and embarrassment associated with having lost one’s home hinder a reunion. There are also people who don’t have the digital literacy or digital access to find their loved ones, Jessica Donig, Miracle Messages’ executive director, told NationSwell.
Support from loved ones can be a key element in escaping homelessness, Donig said. Donig recounted her first time volunteering in a shelter where she walked down rows of beds crowded with people at the largest homeless shelter in northern California. There she felt “deep loneliness,” she said.
“A shelter is a place that’s packed full of people,” she said. “But it’s a very lonely place.”
People don’t live for a bed or a roof over their head. They live for their people, Donig said.
Beyond providing a positive life outlook, loved ones can be advocates for the person experiencing homeless. Sometimes a loved one has the means to provide them with a home.
Founder and CEO Kevin Adler described how Miracle Messages is part of the growing movement to triage homelessness. It can also save cities money.
“It’s the most cost effective, humane intervention to tackle homelessness in our communities,” Adler told NationSwell.
Miracle Messages has reconnected over 210 people with their loved ones so far. Thirty-four of those individuals are no longer homeless. Timothy is one of those people.
“When you think about the stories about like Timothy’s, that’s a person who would never have gotten off the streets,” Donig said. “He might have gone into permanent housing but that would’ve been at the cost to the city.”
And a considerable cost, at that. A person experiencing homelessness costs taxpayers an average of $35,578 a year. For someone like Timothy, who wouldn’t have been prioritized in a system that prioritizes families and women, it could take years for him to gain permanent housing.
Miracle Messages works with outreach workers, case managers and shelters to provide the messages as an additional resource.
“Miracle Messages is great when it’s offered as a stand-alone service,” Donig said. “But it’s much better when it’s offered with other resources.”
The nonprofit sends groups out to homeless shelters and streets to record messages. The online volunteers then hunt for family members and try to connect the two parties.
It takes between two and three weeks for a case to be solved. The average time the families are disconnected is 20 years.
The nonprofit started in 2014 in memory of Adler’s Uncle Mark. Mark was frequently homeless and living on and off the streets for 30 years. Alder said Mark was the sweetest, most family-oriented uncle he could’ve asked for.
Years after Mark died, Adler visited his grave. Afterward, Adler remembered pulling out his phone and scrolling through social media status updates.
“What would it look like to use these storytelling tools to help people like my uncle?”
Adler got involved with the issue of homelessness in California, where he met Jeffrey on the streets. Adler started talking with Jeffery, who hadn’t seen his niece, nephew or sister in 22 years. After chatting, Adler pulled out his phone, recorded a video for Jeffery’s family and posted it to Facebook.
Within an hour it was shared over a hundred times, and within 20 minutes, Jeffery’s sister was tagged.
Jeffery, who had been registered as missing for 12 years, now had his family back. That simple effort of recording a message turned into what Miracle Messages is today.
Donig joined the team after her first visit to a homeless shelter with Miracle Messages.
“What I witnessed at Miracle Messages on that first day really was a paradigm shift for me,” she said.
It’s where she recorded her first message and where she engaged in meaningful conversations.
Donig said she went into the shelter skeptical. She initially felt the work was invasive. Asking about lost family and friends seemed “off limits.” But everyone was so eager to share their stories and reconnect, that those initial thoughts dissipated.
Six weeks later, she joined Miracle Messages.
With a background in sociology and startups, Donig brought her experience to Miracle Messages in 2017 with the hope to expand it into across the nation. She created a systematic approach that anyone can replicate, she said.  
Donig said there are four essential pieces of information to collect in each message. The information about the homeless person, information about the loved one, what they want to say and how to reach the homeless person afterward.
Although the team’s main efforts are in California, anyone anywhere can send a message through Miracle Message’s website, email ([email protected]) or helpline (1-800-MISS-YOU).
“In this area of homelessness, everyone needs to work together, because there isn’t a single solution that fits everyone,” she said.
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