A Video Project Reconnects Homeless People With Families

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When Isaac Avila stopped sending his mother birthday and Christmas cards, his family knew something was wrong.

His sister, Guadalupe Avila, and her large family tried unsuccessfully to find their brother, especially in 2010 when their father died and in 2014, when a brother passed away.

So the family was stunned when after 40 years, Mr. Avila found them via a 58-second video posted by Miracle Messages, an organization that aims to reconnect homeless people with their loved ones.

“I hope to see you all pretty soon. I wish I could get a hold of you in a better way but this is going to be the fastest way and I hope you all have a computer,” Mr. Avila said in his video. “I miss you all very much; my heart is missing you big time.”

Within days of posting the video on YouTube earlier this year, Miracle Messages had shown Mr. Avila’s message to his family and begun setting in place a reunion. Today, Mr. Avila is living with his 92-year-old mother, helping to take care of her in his childhood home in Texas.

Mr. Avila’s reunion is one of more than two dozen Miracle Messages has successfully engineered. As families around the country gather for Thanksgiving, many are missing a relative: According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 500,000 Americans are homeless. And in many cases they have lost touch with their families.

The goal of Miracle Messages is to help 1 percent of the world’s estimated 100 million homeless people reunite with loved ones by 2021, said its founder and chief executive, Kevin F. Adler. He said he started the organization almost two years ago in honor of his Uncle Mark, who lived on and off the streets for 30 years.

“This is an effort to humanize a homeless person and reconnect them with their families,” Mr. Adler said. “Even if you are homeless, you are a complete being as you are.”

Mr. Adler said he found that through social media, it was relatively easy to find a homeless person’s family. One of the first videos he recorded, on Christmas Eve 2014, was of a homeless man named Jeffrey Gottshall, who was living on the streets of San Francisco. He posted it to a Facebook group in the small town in Pennsylvania where Mr. Gottshall was from, and within 20 minutes someone had tagged his sister.

“Ninety percent of the messages we’ve been able to deliver have been received positively, and in about 40 percent of the reunions, the homeless person has stable housing or is living with family,” Mr. Adler said. “In some cases, the family does not want to be in contact for whatever reason and we have to respect their wishes. But in those cases, we often find friends or other relatives who do want to reach out.”

So far, Miracle Messages has recorded more than 130 videos, delivered 43 and reunited 26 families. The organization relies on sponsors, donations and a crowdfunding campaign to do its work. Mr. Adler was also named as one of 20 TED Residency program residents this fall to help Miracle Messages grow.

Some reunions are happy ones, like the Avila family’s. In a telephone interview, Mr. Avila recounted the day he made the video. As he got food from a local homeless outreach group in Miami, he heard an announcement that Miracle Messages would be recording videos of anyone who wanted to send loved ones a message. Mr. Avila stepped forward.

“It was time for me to contact my family,” he said.

He spoke of bouncing from printing press jobs at several newspapers in Texas before going to Miami to find work. He said that for a few years in the 1980s, he worked in the printing press shop for The Miami Herald. But he said he had a mental breakdown and walked away one day.

During the time he was lost to his family, Mr. Avila lived on and off the streets, found some work at local outreach centers and suffered a heart attack. Now 66, he is thrilled to be home with his large family.

But not every reunion has a happy ending. Jeffrey Gottshall, 47, is still waiting for his. Mr. Gottshall’s 32-second video, taken on the streets of San Francisco where he still lives, plunged his family in Pennsylvania into a spotlight many members did not welcome. His younger sister, Jennifer Gottshall-Gavitt, stepped forward to embrace her brother.

“The best way to describe my family is old school,” Mrs. Gottshall-Gavitt said in a telephone interview. “You don’t even cry at funerals, because that’s making a public spectacle. So when the video was made public, it was like the sky had fallen for some members of my family.”

When her family saw Mr. Gottshall’s message, it was the first time in 20 years they had been in contact with him, although Mrs. Gottshall-Gavitt and her husband had tried to find him.

She went to San Francisco to see her brother and with Mr. Adler’s help, was able to reunite and talk to him. She says her brother suffers from mental health issues. She is trying to help him get the help he needs but says he needs to want to help himself.

For now, the best she can do from her Pennsylvania home is to have people like Mr. Adler and a police sergeant she met with San Francisco’s homeless outreach unit keep her updated on how her brother is doing. They help Mr. Gottshall call her on occasion so she knows he’s O.K.

“Even if Jeffrey doesn’t end up with a happy ending, other people are getting their happy ending and that’s just as important,” she said. “No one should be lost. In his own way, Jeffrey has helped find people.”