January 2, 2019

A social entrepreneur’s innovative approach to ending homelessness—reuniting families

Miracle Messages helps to rebuild social support systems by connecting individuals experiencing homelessness with their loved ones.

In three years, Miracle Messages has helped nearly 200 people who are experiencing homelessness reunite with their families. Photos courtesy of Miracle Messages

Mark was my uncle. He was the most family-oriented member of my extended family. He was the guest of honor at Thanksgiving and Christmas. He remembered every birthday: the year before he died at the age of 50, he gave me an eagle bandana for my birthday.

Mark also suffered from schizophrenia, and lived on-and-off the streets for 30 years.

In November 2013, for the first time since he died 10 years prior, I visited his gravesite in Santa Cruz. My dad and Uncle David had chipped in for a plot of ground to call his own, refusing to have Mark’s memory forgotten.

As poignant as this was for me, I wondered if there was anything I could do for the people still living on the streets each day, whose lives we forget or ignore.

Like Mark, there are many people on the streets who suffer from mental illness, or drug addictions, or severe disabilities. Many people who have problems, just like the rest of us—some have mental illnesses, some are down on their luck or newly divorced, and some may have had a bad accident or are dealing with mounting health care costs. Many people who have families and people who miss them and love them.

Over and over again, I heard different versions of the same story: "I never realized I was homeless when I lost my housing, only when I lost my family and friends."

I decided to do something about it. I started Miracle Messages to make an immediate and tangible impact in the lives of our neighbors living on-and-off the streets, to build empathy through person-to-person interaction and storytelling, and to use technology for social good.

Over the course of 2014, I outfitted 24 homeless volunteers with GoPro cameras, inviting them to capture the world through their eyes and narrate their experiences, in the hopes of discovering an insight that might shine light on this growing national crisis of homelessness.

One of the inspiration's for Miracle Messages is the author's Uncle Mark (back row center). The author is front left.

From hundreds of hours of footage as part of the “Homeless GoPro” project, I was shocked by what I heard. Over and over again, I heard different versions of the same story: “I never realized I was homeless when I lost my housing, only when I lost my family and friends.”

Are homeless individuals disconnected from their social support systems? I decided to find out. In December 2014, I took a walk down San Francisco’s Market Street, offering warm tea, hot biscuits, and a simple question to my neighbors living on the streets: “Do you have any family or friends that you would like to reunite with for the holidays?”

That’s how I met Jeffrey, who recorded a short video message to his family. That evening, unsure of what to do with the video, I went on Facebook and found a Facebook group connected to Jeffrey’s hometown. I posted the video there. Within once hour, the post was shared hundreds of times. It made the local news that night. Messages poured in from former classmates and neighbors who knew Jeffrey and wanted to help, raising $5000 over the next few weeks. And in the first 20 minutes of the post, Jeffrey’s sister Jennifer was tagged. We spoke the next day. She told me that Jeffrey had been a missing person for the past 12 years. Less than three weeks after I recorded Jeffrey’s video, Jeffrey and Jennifer reunited after 22 years apart.

At first, this story felt like a miracle. But over the past three years, Miracle Messages has helped nearly 200 families reunite, with an average time disconnected for 20 years! And all this is through short videos, social media, and local volunteers. We are on a mission to rebuild social support systems and end the “relational poverty” affecting as many as one in three of our neighbors experiencing homelessness.

The process is simple and effective: a person isolated by homelessness records a short message to a family member or friend, often with the help of a caseworker or volunteer. Then, a network of 1,200-plus “digital detectives” attempt to locate the loved one and deliver the Miracle Message.

I believe that everyone is someone’s somebody–someone’s mom or dad, brother or sister, son or daughter, or in my case, someone’s uncle. Our goal is to reach 10,000 reunions by 2023 and, in the process, inspire people everywhere to embrace their homeless neighbors not as problems to be solved, but as people to be loved. I hope you will join us.

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Kevin F. Adler

Miracle Messages

Kevin F. Adler is a social entrepreneur dedicated to a world where everyone is seen as invaluable and interconnected. He is the Founder and CEO of Miracle Messages, a nonprofit that reconnects our neighbors experiencing homelessness with their loved ones ... and us. To date, Miracle Messages has reunited 180 families, with an average time disconnected of 20 years; 20 percent of reunions have led to housing and 80 percent have resulted in a positive outcome, all at a fraction of the cost of other interventions.

Kevin has been honored as a TED Resident, Ashoka/American Express emerging innovator, Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, and MassChallenge winner. He has given talks at TED, SXSW, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Google, the U.S. Departments of Health & Human Services and Housing & Urban Development, and many more. Kevin's work has been featured widely, including in the New York Times, NPR, NowThis, and on a billboard in Times Square.

Kevin is the author of Natural Disasters as a Catalyst for Social Capital (Rowman & Littlefield). Previously, he studied exponential technologies at Singularity University (GSP15) and co-founded three EdTech startups. He received his M.Phil in Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and his BA in Politics at Occidental College.
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