In New Orleans, a Mother's Search for Her Lost Son Jean Aaron hadn't heard from her 52-year-old son in five years. Then, earlier this month, she heard his voice on the radio. Chris Turnbow was one of the hundreds of homeless sleeping near New Orleans' city hall. Aaron and her grandson got in their car and set out to bring Chris home.
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In New Orleans, a Mother's Search for Her Lost Son

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In New Orleans, a Mother's Search for Her Lost Son

In New Orleans, a Mother's Search for Her Lost Son

In New Orleans, a Mother's Search for Her Lost Son

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/17518270/17525012" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Chris Turnbow with his son, David, and his mother, Jean Aaron, stand in Duncan Plaza, New Orleans, on the morning of their reunion. Joseph Shapiro, NPR hide caption

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Joseph Shapiro, NPR

Chris Turnbow with his son, David, and his mother, Jean Aaron, stand in Duncan Plaza, New Orleans, on the morning of their reunion.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR

NPR Story that Launched the Search

  

Jean Aaron heard her son's voice for the first time in five years in a Dec. 10, 2007, NPR story. The story was about an effort to move hundreds of homeless people living in New Orleans into permanent housing.

  

Chris Turnbow, Jean's son, was featured in that story. Listen below.

Jean Aaron holds her son, Chris, before they get into her car and head home to Marion, Ark. Joseph Shapiro, NPR hide caption

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Joseph Shapiro, NPR

Jean Aaron holds her son, Chris, before they get into her car and head home to Marion, Ark.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR

Duncan Plaza Closes to Homeless

  

Friday marked the deadline for homeless people to move out of a park across from City Hall in New Orleans. An agency that works with the homeless said it had relocated 249 people into apartments and hotels.

  

Unity of Greater New Orleans began taking people out of Duncan Plaza the day before Thanksgiving. Executive Director Martha Kegel called it "a monumental humanitarian achievement" to move "so many people off the streets into housing in a single month." Many are now living in low-cost hotels. Unity will now have to find them permanent places to live, along with health care and other services.

  

Kegel says that estimates put the city's homeless population at 12,000 — double what it was before Hurricane Katrina.

  

Workmen were still completing a fence around Duncan Plaza on Friday afternoon. The homeless encampment was forced to dismantle there so that contractors can start tearing down two state office buildings that were heavily damaged during Hurricane Katrina. Friday's deadline to leave the park also falls on the day that many groups mark as Homeless Persons' Memorial Day, to remember people who have died while living on the street.

  

New Orleans is facing an extreme shortage of affordable housing. On Thursday, police arrested 15 protesters at City Hall who tried to prevent city council members from voting on a federal plan to demolish 4,500 units of public housing and replace them with mixed-income townhouses. The council voted unanimously in favor of the plan. — Joseph Shapiro

Five years ago, Chris Turnbow left home in Marion, Ark., and just disappeared.

His family had reason to believe he was living in New Orleans; a family friend had bumped into him there at Mardi Gras. But that was before Hurricane Katrina. Turnbow's mother, Jean Aaron, tried not to consider whether his long silence meant he was alive or dead.

"I have been so scared since Katrina came, not really knowing anything about what had happened to him, and having the very worst thoughts sometimes," she says. "And then I'd try to be positive about it and know that someday I'd see him again."

Earlier this month, 69-year-old Jean heard her son's voice for the first time since he had left home. She heard him on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, in a story about homeless people living in Duncan Plaza, a park in front of City Hall.

Turnbow had been living along the wall of a shut-down state office building that was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. State officials were going to tear down that building. Duncan Plaza was about to be fenced off, and the homeless people living there, like her son, would be forced to leave. From the story, Jean learned that an outreach worker for an agency that works with the homeless had just found a small apartment for Turnbow.

Jean was thrilled to hear her son say, "To me, home is a feeling. It's more than furniture and what-nots."

Finding Chris

Jean and David Turnbow — her grandson and Chris's son — decided to go to New Orleans to find Chris.

It wouldn't be easy. Chris stayed two nights in his apartment, then hit the streets again. That's not unusual for someone who has been homeless. There's a lot of stimulation on the streets. It can be strange to suddenly move inside, especially into a room with no television or radio.

Chris knew where church groups and other volunteers handed out free meals to the homeless; he had friends downtown; he had a routine.

It might have been wiser for Jean to wait until Chris had settled into the apartment, until she could talk to him on the phone, until he knew she was coming. But she wasn't going to wait.

From the radio story, Jean knew that her son had a home before Katrina. He had been working in carpentry and construction, but his truck and tools were stolen during the storm. After Katrina, he didn't have the money to replace them.

Chris tried to keep working, but recently he had gotten sick. He had part of his intestines removed in October. Ever since, he has been on the streets trying to keep a colostomy pouch clean. He needs another operation to reconnect his colon.

Jean also found out that her son, who is 52, is known by some on the streets as Old Man Chris, because he's got a white beard.

"It sounds strange to me to hear the little boy that I raised called Old Man Chris," she says with a laugh.

David, who is 36 now, says his father had taken off before, for weeks and even months at a time. He tried not to be angry about it and came to accept that that's just the way his father is. David says his father referred to it as "being kind of lost out in the world. And, you know, he wasn't homeless back then or nothing, but just a rambler."

One day, when David was 14 and his father had been gone for about a year, the phone rang.

It was Chris.

David recalls, "He said, 'Hey son!' And I'm like, 'Dad?' "

His father was calling from Wisconsin. David laughs as he tells the story: "I mean if he leaves, he's liable to call you from anywhere."

But Chris had never been gone for five years, without making contact.

A Daunting Task

Jean and David leave their home in Marion, Ark., a little before noon Dec. 14 and head into New Orleans.

The mood in the car is festive; they tell loving stories. They're excited to think they may get to see Chris — to hug him — before the end of the evening.

But as they reach New Orleans, that optimism will be tested.

They head straight to Duncan Plaza. That's the park across from City Hall where a homeless people sleep in dozens of tents and under piles of blankets. They sleep in the shelter of a wooden gazebo and side-by-side on a sidewalk.

The park is a nagging symbol of the city's many homeless people. There are an estimated 12,000 now, twice as many as before Katrina hit. Aaron and David see the fence that's being built to close off the park so state contractors can tear down two office buildings that were heavily damaged in the storm.

Jean and David go straight to a wall where Chris had slept on a scrap of carpet, alongside other homeless men and women.

"I'm trying to find my Daddy: Old Man Chris. I know he'd been sleeping over here," David tells some of the people in tents and on the sidewalk.

There's no sign of Chris.

But his mother and son can now see, smell and touch the brutal life of homeless people like Chris. Blankets are piled up like trash. There's a biting smell of urine. Figures emerge from the shadows.

"Man," says a shaken David, "I've just never seen so much poverty and desperation."

It's dark. David and Jean are exhausted. They trace, over and over, the streets downtown and through the French Quarter. David sweeps the streets with his eyes, searching for his father in the shadows. On Canal Street, David spots a man with white hair, face down on the sidewalk. He leaps out of the car before it is parked.

When he comes back, he looks like he's seen a ghost. He says that as he approached the man, he could see that people were just "stepping right over him, going about their merry business, and just stepping right over him like he was a lump in the road."

David tried to figure out whether this man was the father he hadn't seen in five years.

"I just got down on one knee, and I — even looking at his face — just could not tell if it was Dad or not."

Then David checked for some familiar tattoos on his father's arms and on his thumb.

"I got to looking at his hands and his arms," David explains. "I didn't see any of the tattoos or nothing, and his hands — his hands were too small to be Dad's hands, and I knew it wasn't him."

But David is shaken. They've been in the car for 10 hours. They haven't even stopped to eat. It's time to quit searching and call it a night.

A New Day

The next morning, they get up early and head back to Duncan Plaza. The park is lively in the daylight, with the scores of homeless people, the volunteers who feed them and the preachers who minister to them.

Nobody seems to know Chris, but everybody knows exactly where to find him.

One man, who ministers to the homeless, says he saw Chris in Jackson Square early this morning. Another man, with another ministry, says he's living in a hotel. A homeless woman says Chris was in Duncan Plaza just a short time ago but was heading back to the park.

Jean and David follow the leads, but after hours of searching, they head back to Duncan Plaza. It's noon, when volunteer groups show up with lunch.

David pulls his grandmother's Dodge to the curb. He looks out the window and shouts, "Dad! There he is. Dad!"

It's Chris. He's sitting on the wall, his beard bright white in the sun, his dark eyes wide open in surprise.

Chris hurries across the street with a limp. There's a reunion of hugs, long looks and tears in the middle of the street.

Chris hugs his mother and son. "Oh, Baby. Oh, I love you," he cries.

"Dad," David says over and over.

"What in the world are you all doing here?" Chris asks.

"We've looked hard and hard and hard for you," says David, explaining that they heard him on the radio. Chris says he had hoped they would hear it.

"It's a Christmas miracle, Dad. We love you," David says.

Chris cries, and his mother consoles him: "I know, Honey. I know. That's OK. It's OK, though. We got you. That's all that matters."

Then Chris, still holding onto his mother and son, shouts to the people on the street, "Hey! This is my son and my mother. They come from Arkansas and found me!"

There's a lot of catching up to do: Who is sick, who has died, how much David's kids have grown. Three new granddaughters have been born.

Going Home

Then Chris says what his mother and son hoped to hear: He wants to go with them back to Arkansas. He has wanted to do that for a long time, but pride got in his way.

"I didn't want to come home with nothing, and you all think the only reason I come home was because I needed you," Chris says.

"That's where you're supposed to come home!" Jean exclaims.

"I want you to know I come home because I want to be with y'all," Chris says, explaining that he wanted to return out of love, not for need.

In a moment, it's decided that they'll return together to Arkansas. But first, they drive by Chris's tiny apartment to get his things.

Furniture is still stacked in the living room, and clothes are in a backpack, never unpacked. By an air mattress on the floor, there is a can of syrupy pineapple, half eaten, the tin top open.

Shamus Rohn comes to say goodbye. He is an outreach worker with Unity of Greater New Orleans. He worked for two months to get Chris off the streets. Rohn and other workers are trying to move every homeless person out of Duncan Plaza, before it's scheduled to be fenced off for good Dec. 21. Rohn is 26, and Chris says he always thought Rohn and his son — both tall and athletic — resembled each other.

Then Chris wants to explain something unexpected about this woman he calls his mother. She's really his sister.

Chris and Jean tell the story. Just a few weeks after Chris was born, his mother died of a brain tumor. Jean was 16 at the time, and their mother had asked her to raise the baby. Jean got married soon afterward. "They took and raised me as their own," Chris says.

"You were our own," Jean says, correcting him quickly.

"This is Mom," Chris says, holding Jean.

Then Chris fills the tub — there's no shower — in his little apartment. He takes a quick bath, grabs his few possessions, then locks up the place that was his for less than one week. He sits in the back seat of Jean's car. His son gets behind the wheel. Then the family, reunited, leaves New Orleans on an eight-hour drive straight back to Arkansas — and back home.