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Future Of Philanthropy

This Volunteer Network Reconnects Homeless People With Their Loved Ones

Miracle Messages uses videos of homeless people to find their families, hopefully easing some of the emotional toll of living on the streets.

This Volunteer Network Reconnects Homeless People With Their Loved Ones

There are an estimated 100 million homeless people worldwide. Being homeless obviously creates an tragic list of devastating problems, but while the economic and health issues may be obvious, some of the emotional ones are less discussed. For one, many homeless people, without a fixed address or means of communication, lose touch with loved ones.

To fix that, the nonprofit Miracle Messages enlists volunteers to help homeless people record messages to those with whom they’ve lost touch. The group then uses those dispatches like clues to track down and facilitate reunions. In doing so, they may help people feeling lost take back more control of their lives, perhaps with a new emotional and financial support network. "It’s really crazy how reunification can be a catalyst for life change," says Jessica Day, the group’s program director.

Miracle Messages sprang up from a different type of project. In 2014, founder Kevin Adler launched Homeless GoPro, which equipped people on the street with point-of-view cameras to share daily hardships and how they were treated. (Adler dubbed the concept "extreme living"—although not everyone loved the idea.) Adler’s late uncle suffered from chronic homelessness and schizophrenia. He wanted to generate more empathy; the footage showed how difficult an untethered, often solitary life could be.

As he summarizes on his website: "We repeatedly heard homeless volunteers say some variation of: 'I never realized I was homeless when I lost my home, but only when I lost my family and friends to support me.'"

So in mid-2014, Adler changed tactics. Miracle Messages now has a team of volunteers who create videos and use the resulting details to try to reach family members, often through social media. Many homeless people still have cell phones or email addresses, so the group can then facilitate introductions. They partner with soup kitchens and shelters to relay messages to those more off-grid.

To date, the group has recorded 95 messages and delivered 45 of them. About 40% percent of those connections result in reunification or a transition to stable. (Miracle Messages posts videos that haven’t reached recipients on YouTube. They’ve made connections just from people searching Google.) The goal is to help 1% of the homeless population—that's at least 1 million people—by 2021, Day says.

Meanwhile, they're humanizing the problem in new ways. Stories about people like Jeffrey Gottshall or Johnny Dwyer make it clear that many who are down on their luck ended up there through some sad twist of fate and are fighting to change things. That makes the problem a bit harder to ignore. Because the mission is video based, it’s essentially pre-packaged to go viral.

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