Miracle Messages volunteers help homeless people reconnect with long lost family members

By Stephanie Case

Miracle Messages volunteers and outreach workers from Safe Place for Youth and the St. Joseph Center fanned out around Venice offering to mediate conversations between the homeless and estranged loved ones
Photos courtesy of Will Hawkins

For 27 years, Bread & Roses Café has been a Venice mainstay — a spot where hundreds of local homeless men, women and children can sit down each morning and be served a gourmet meal.

But on a recent December afternoon, the restaurant turned into a makeshift detective’s office. A group of amateur internet sleuths clustered around a breakfast table, laptops out, scouring WhitePages.com for a phone number.

It wasn’t long before one of them — Stephen Butler, assistant vice president of programs at the St. Joseph Center — found it, grabbing his cell and punching in the newly discovered digits.

When a woman picked up on the other end, Butler told her he had something to deliver: a message of love from the homeless niece she hadn’t seen in years.

Butler and the team were helping Miracle Messages, a nonprofit that reconnects people living on the street with their estranged family members and friends. The group is exploiting our technologically-saturated world for good: First, by recording video postcards from people in need; then, by using their digital savvy to track down the recipient.

Since Miracle Messages’ inception, the San Francisco-based organization has reunited dozens of loved ones, sometimes after half a lifetime apart.

“It blows my mind that 10, 20,
30 years can go by where someone hasn’t talked to their sister, their mother, someone they care about,” says Jessica Day, Miracle Messages’ vice president of programs.

“In this day and age, you think that everyone could be connected if they wanted to be — that anyone can tap into what’s out there through the internet,” she says. “But then you meet some people on the street who are technologically illiterate, or who have emotional barriers. People that think, ‘I’m not good enough to reach out to my family.’ Or, ‘Maybe they haven’t reached out to me because they don’t love me. Why don’t they just find me?’”

For two days this month, Day trekked the streets of Venice in the hopes of breaking past those barriers. Along with a slew of volunteers dressed in matching black T-shirts, she wandered the neighborhood, striking up conversations with people living on the beach, curled up on Ocean Front Walk or tucked into the tents that line Third Avenue.

The team asked each person they met if they wanted to reconnect with a person from their past. Many took them up on the offer, braving the emotional ramparts that once kept them apart.

“It uproots all these feelings,” says Day, “whether it’s a heavy wave of sadness, grief, anger or guilt that it’s been so long.”

Many turned down the opportunity, but the team remains hopeful that the service will catch on.

“Sometimes we’re just planting a seed,” says Will Hawkins, the new chairman of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Homeless Committee, who was the catalyst for Miracle Messages’ trip to Southern California. “People might feel a little too vulnerable [today], but they could be ready tomorrow.”

Starting this month, volunteers in Los Angeles’ brand new Miracle Messages chapter can work with St. Joseph Center and Safe Place for Youth to help collect videos, then scour the web to deliver them. If a successful connection is made, the group can even help raise funds to send someone to live with a loved one.

“Just a few months ago, a guy went from San Francisco to Tennessee, back to family we found that he hadn’t even known existed,” Day says. Their local chapter rallied, pooling together $500 to help cover a cross-country bus ticket, food, a haircut and new clothes.

Hawkins, who also organized a Dec. 4 benefit concert to raise funds for the effort, thinks helping people move off the streets and in with friends and family could help alleviate Venice’s homeless epidemic.

“This is a perfect example of how a community can mobilize itself,” he says. “We’re not waiting for the city to find a solution to homelessness; we’ve created one. These are things that people can do tomorrow — or even right now — to make a positive change.”

Hawkins recognizes that staying with a loved one isn’t a solution for every member of Venice’s homeless community, but at the very least, Miracle Messages can remind them that they’re not alone.

“Just hearing her voice again, afterit’s been so long …” one Venice woman reflected, teary eyed, after the team helped her make a phone call to her once-estranged aunt. “It’s inexplicable, indescribable. … It’s a blessing and a half.”

To connect with the Miracle Messages’ local chapter, visit miraclemessages.org/getinvolved.