Harnessing Social Media To Reconnect Homeless People With Their Families A San Francisco organization reunites homeless people — or "houseless" people — with their families through social media. They want to reconnect 1 million people in the next five years.

Harnessing Social Media To Reconnect Homeless People With Their Families

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/498074856/498135814" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


A week before Christmas in 2014, Kevin Adler decided to take a walk down Market Street in San Francisco. Adler carried with him three things - hot tea, biscuits and an offer, an offer to every homeless person he met to record a video message for a long-lost relative or friend. Kevin Adler promised he would try to deliver the messages in time for the holidays. Out of that was born a mission, a startup called Miracle Messages, which has now helped dozens of homeless people reunite with their families. We invited Adler and one of those people he's helped to come tell us about it. Adler says one of the first hurdles is persuading people to make a video.

KEVIN ADLER: A lot of folks that have recorded messages, one of the hesitancies in recording a message is they've said, well, I don't know how the family's going to respond. I feel like a burden. I feel ashamed. I'm embarrassed. And so trying to get past that, doing something very simple with a - what we call a video postcard, is a very helpful first step for basically saying who you love, who you want to reconnect with, whatever kind of message you want to leave. And we'll do our best to deliver it.

KELLY: Now let me introduce you to Dave Adams. Adams lived on the streets in San Francisco for 20 years. He says he lost touch with his family, couldn't figure out how to make contact.

DAVE ADAMS: Well, personally, I gave up a while back, just decided I wasn't going to put a whole lot of effort into it anymore. I ain't computer smart. Pretty dumb - pretty much dumb as a box of rocks when it comes to computers. So I didn't have - knew I didn't have no way I could do it. So I just gave up.

KELLY: Until a volunteer at Miracle Messages helped Adams find his brothers. And he learned he had a half sister named Dorothy who'd been looking for him for years. So he called her.

ADAMS: She don't usually answer phones that she don't know the number to on a cell phone. She said, OK, I'll answer the phone. And then she answers the phone. And I says, is this Dorothy? She says yes. I hear you're looking - you've been looking for me. You want to talk to me about something? And it's like - she says, oh my god. Oh, god. Oh, god. It ain't. It ain't. It ain't. She said, who are you? I told her. She says - then she couldn't say nothing. She just started crying. She was just, you know - she says yeah, she got a little upset - emotional somewhat, you know? I guess about 30-something years she's been looking. She promised her dad, our dad, that no matter what, she'll just keep going until she found me.

KELLY: When we got Adams together on the line with founder Kevin Adler, we asked about that moment and what Adler hopes might follow from it.

Is there, aside from the reunions themselves, a broader goal of helping people move on with their lives, move off the streets?

ADLER: So my uncle Mark had been homeless for about 30 years. He suffered from schizophrenia, lived on and off the streets. I never saw him as a homeless man. You know, he's my beloved uncle. And so...

ADAMS: ...I ain't homeless, dude. I'm houseless.

ADLER: (Laughter) Exactly, houseless. And so when we walk down the street and we see someone who is without a house, it's easy to define them by that. And we want to live in a world where we walk down the street and we don't see Homeless Joe or Jane, Houseless Joe or Jane - sorry, Dave - but we see someone...

ADAMS: ...Now, there's some homelessness - homelessness is a state of mind.

KELLY: Dave, you jumped in there, in case not everybody listening could hear. And you were, it sounded like, objecting to the term homeless. Did you think of yourself that way these last 20 years?

ADAMS: No, I said homelessness and houselessness is different. Houseless is like how I think about it. Where you lay your head at night and lay down to go to sleep. Whether it's in a mansion or in a car or a school bus or a doorway, one thing about it is that's home.

KELLY: And it sounds like, Dave, you are headed to a new house, a new home with your sister at her farm in Tennessee. Is that right?

ADAMS: For now.

KELLY: For now?

ADAMS: That's - she's going to pick me up at the bus stop, the bus station.

KELLY: When Dave Adams gets to that bus stop in Tennessee, he already will have a job working on a farm. Adams' family was glad to hear from him. Kevin Adler says that's not always the case.

ADLER: In our experience so far, about 90 percent of the messages that we've delivered are positively received. But that still means that about 1 out of every 10 occasions the family or the friends are not interested in reconnecting. Fortunately, in many of those instances, we've had other individuals who maybe weren't mentioned in the initial video that do reach out and say, hey, I'd like to reconnect.

KELLY: So, Adler says, the work of what he calls a global network of volunteer detectives continues.

ADLER: We want to reunite 1 million people by 2021. That's 1 percent of the world's homeless population - houseless population. So yeah, if we're really going to move the needle in ending homelessness and using social media for social good, we figure we need to set the goal at least at a million and then hopefully exceed it.

KELLY: Talking there with Kevin Adler, founder of Miracle Messages, and Dave Adams, one of the people he's helped reunite with his family after 20 years houseless in San Francisco.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.