Few homeless people drift into Dolan Springs, Ariz., because there’s not much of a town to drift into. Little more than a gas station, a Family Dollar and a grocery store, it’s a splash of half-civilization in the middle of the desert, where 36 percent of residents live below the poverty line. So when Patience Matthieu, a thin woman of 31 years, saw a new homeless person in March, asking for food, she stopped and watched him. He looked just like her cousin, if that cousin had some teeth knocked out. What was he doing all the way out here?
Matthieu could tell something wasn’t right with him. He said he wanted to tend lawns, but this was a desert town. He said he was living in a tunnel, but where? So she decided to help. She brought him clothing, got him some canned food, and offered to split her earnings made from selling a few odds and ends at a swap meet. As he grew to trust her, she asked him how she could contact him, and, hesitatingly, he gave her his full name. She went home and, curious, punched it into Google: Christopher Aaron Moreland.
The results introduced Matthieu to the pained digital world of families searching for relatives, many of whom are severely mentally ill. In one more facet of life upturned by technological change, families are increasingly adopting the digital tools of 2018 to find vanished loved ones, in addition to the missing posters and federal registries of the past. They’re creating Facebook pages proclaiming their relative is missing, then sharing it. They’re crowdsourcing information. They’re trying to make posts go viral and sometimes succeeding.
The search ultimately led Matthieu to a group called Missing & Homeless, a Facebook community that, in three years, has gone from a few hundred followers to about 43,000, helping to reconnect around 45 families. The results of those reunions have been mixed. Some have been joyous — hugs and tears and an end of homelessness. Others have been wrenching. Families sometimes learn their loved ones want to stay on the streets, and, worse, their homeless relatives may not even recognize them.
Matthieu clicked on Moreland’s page, shared by Missing & Homeless, and stared at the words. “Christopher, my heart is broken without you,” it said at the top. “Please call me & let me know you are alive. Love, mom.”
It listed a phone number.
Matthieu didn’t know what to expect, but she had to try. She was a mother, too. She dialed the number, and more than 240 miles away, inside a big house in a nice suburb outside Phoenix, a woman who hadn’t seen her son in seven years picked up.
“I have found your son,” Matthieu said.
On the other end, Matthieu could hear the mother wailing.
‘A hole ripped out of your heart’
Elise Cash and her husband got in the car immediately. It was a nearly four-hour drive to her son, and they had to hurry. Cash was inconsolable. Her husband kept telling her, “You’re going to make yourself sick.” But she couldn’t help it. Seven years, she thought. Seven years since she’d seen her son. Seven years of wondering whether he was dead. Seven years of trying and failing to move on with her life.
She had two sons. One was academically-inclined and went on to achieve not one but two master’s degrees. The other was Chris, who wanted to work with his hands. In her eyes, he’d been born with it all: confidence, looks, creativity. By age 20, he was in a union, making good money, blazing intricate designs into panes of glass for customers.
But that was before she came to understand the truth of schizophrenia. Everything was fine until, suddenly, it wasn’t. That moment came when he was 23. He had become suspicious of everyone. He thought his boss at the shop was trying to set him up for grand theft auto, and his neighbors — decent, kind people — were spying on him with surveillance cameras. He thought Cash was an enemy, and voices were telling him she had to die.
They drove through a desolate landscape of brush and sand, and she looked at herself in the mirror. Seven years had taken a toll on her. But what about him? What of him would be left? The last time she saw him, he was 33, and they’d been out to dinner. “Date night,” she called those Wednesday evenings. By then, it’d been 10 years since his diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He’d had periods when he’d stitched together a life, working jobs, taking his Risperdal, a medication for psychosis, living on his own. But all that was unraveling. He’d just scratched a large “X” into the bed frame above where her husband slept and had withdrawn into himself. The day after dinner, he called her “radio woman,” telling her that if anyone came to the house, he’d kill them and put them in a dumpster. Frantic, she asked the police to do a wellness check at his apartment. But when they got there, it was empty. Inside was three months’ worth of Risperdal, untouched.
That began her next life. She tried filing a missing persons report: nothing. She searched for him on the Internet: nothing. She called homeless shelters: nothing. “It was every day, searching,” she said. “Not knowing if he’d been picked up or if he was dead, not knowing from the time you get up until the time you go to bed. It’s such a hole ripped out of your heart and your soul.”
Five years later, she saw an unusual group on Facebook called Missing & Homeless, which featured an image of a homeless woman in a winter hat sitting on the street. It was early 2016, and the page had only a few hundred likes. But it was posting about the homeless, and people seemed to be responding. Could this be an answer? So she called the page’s administrator, and within a few days, a new post materialized on the page. It showed a picture of her son, full cheeks and black hair. It asked for help.
“All it takes is ONE PERSON to recognize Chris somewhere,” it said.
A failed search to find a mother
The last time Robin Wells Burton, the creator of Missing & Homeless, and the person who wrote that post, saw her mother was on Christmas in 1994. For as long as she could remember, Burton had known her mother as someone who would simply disappear for months at a time, then return and resume her life. So when her mother vanished this time, no one thought much of it at first. Only as years went by, and she never returned, and after learning her mother had schizophrenia, did Burton file a missing persons report in 2005.
She hired a private investigator, and snapshots of her mother started to come in, from thousands of miles away from her home in suburban St. Louis. Her Social Security number had been used at a homeless shelter in Santa Monica, Calif. Then the Los Angeles Times published a story in 2013 about a homeless count, and there her mother had been in the lead photo. It said her name was Diane Muldanado, but Burton knew her mother liked to give fake names. So in early 2015, after the fliers and calls to homeless shelters failed, Burton drove to California to search herself.
For nearly a month, she scoured Los Angeles, but her mother wasn’t anywhere, and she ultimately drove home, furious. “I was very angry at God,” she said. “I couldn’t find her, and it’s been that way for 20 years.”
When she got home to St. Louis, she thought there had to be a better way to search for the missing. She’d learned there’s a significant overlap between homelessness and mental illness and that many of the homeless are missing and have relatives searching for them. She started Missing & Homeless, featuring that Los Angeles Times photo of her mother, as a new way for people to search for their loved ones. Within a month, someone had been found. And soon after that, three more were found in a single week.
“It just gets shared and shared and shared until someone says, ‘I know this person,’ or ‘I’ve seen that person,’ ” Burton said.
That was how Don Papageorgas, 22, speaking on the condition that only his middle and last name be used, found his homeless father, who died days after their meeting. “I went to see him [again] and realized he had died the day before,” he said. “That was when it was the most emotional.”
And that, too, was how C.L. Hayes was found. “I was heavy on drugs,” said Hayes, who had been missing and homeless for 25 years. “And I’m with my family now. . . . And it feels good, man, it feels real good.”
Burton wishes she could feel like that. But no matter how many posts she’s published about the homeless and missing, her mother has never resurfaced. It’s only been the loved ones of others. People like Chris Moreland. People who may not know that they’re lost.
Matthieu told her to meet at the Flying J in Kingman. That was where she’d find her son. And now Cash was pulling up, scared. She felt determined to bring him home, but what if he was still psychotic? Matthieu came up to her car and for a moment watched Cash shaking in her seat. “I’ll go in with you,” Matthieu said, and the two women, who until that moment had never met but now felt bonded, held on to each other as they walked into the truck stop.
Cash’s eyes scanned the room, settling on a man in the back. He had the right build: broad shoulders, tall, full frame. But as she got closer, she felt her chest tighten. That wasn’t her son. It couldn’t be. His skin was leathered and cracked. His stubble had gray in it. They’re wrong, she thought. It’s not him. Then she got even closer to him and looked into his eyes, still tan, still gentle, and “I knew it was my boy.”
“Chris, have you been doing some traveling?” she remembers softly saying to her son, now 40. “It’s your mom.”
He looked at her, but there was no flash of recognition.
“You’re not my mom,” he said.
“Are you ready to come home?” she asked, reaching out to touch him.
“Back away,” Matthieu recalls him saying, showing a personality she hadn’t seen before. “If you touch me again, I will call the police.”
By now, Cash had lost her composure and was begging him, asking him to come home, but all he did was look accusingly at Matthieu and her husband — as if they had betrayed him — and walk out of the truck stop, where he hid behind a shed.
Cash didn’t know what to do. She felt powerless. She couldn’t help him. She had found him, finally, but nothing more. Not knowing what else to do, and thinking her presence had done nothing except make everything worse, she eventually got back into her car and drove the four hours home.
She and Matthieu kept in close contact, and soon, through her, Cash was sending her son clothing and food and books about airplanes, because he’d always loved them. This went on for months, and Matthieu helped him find some work, sending pictures and frequent progress updates to Cash. Every now and then, Matthieu and her husband would tell him about his mother. That really was her, they’d tell him, then show him the pictures of himself online that said he was missing. But it never seemed to sink in.
Then one day, he was gone again. He’d hopped on a truck heading for Tempe, Ariz., where he was arrested on a 2011 felony charge of marijuana possession. In May, Maricopa County Superior Court held him for a psychological evaluation, which he is still undergoing.
When Cash found out, she felt only relief. For the first time in a long time, she knew where he was.
And she also thought about how close Tempe was to her house. Only a 30-minute drive away. Was he finally coming back to her, when he was arrested? She didn’t know. But she wanted to hope.
This story has been updated.