Kevin F. Adler founded Miracle Messages to record videos with those who are homeless. He then shares them with lost family members to facilitate reunions.
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Kevin discusses an image that compares the ascendancies of Popes Benedict XVI in 2005 and Francis in 2013. That image is shown below.
This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.
Monologue by Josh Morgan
This is The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people. I’m Josh Morgan.
I’m a sociologist and a writer, and I use this podcast to share stories from people who are making a difference in the lives of others, people like you and me. This is Episode 18, and you can read along with the transcript for this episode at pluralofyou.org/018.
Kevin Adler is an entrepreneur and sociologist from San Francisco, California. He’s also the founder of Miracle Messages, an organization that reunites individuals experiencing homelessness with their loved ones. Kevin is building a network of volunteers and partner organizations that help these individuals record video messages for long-lost family and friends, which are then spread through social media. The idea is to use social media as a tool for positive social action, because these stories might not take place without people like us to share them. I talked with Kevin recently about Miracle Messages and about the people who inspired the idea, and I’ll play our conversation in a moment.
Talking with Kevin got me thinking about a couple of topics. The first is his concept of social storytelling, which I can loosely summarize as the use of social platforms like Facebook and Twitter to not only share stories, but it allows us to become stakeholders in how the narratives unfold. I imagine a lot of us scroll through our feeds every day and click Like on things that we’ll barely remember ten minutes later. Instead, what Kevin wants to do is build community on social media around the stories that his organization captures, meaning that sharing, retweeting, and such stop being these passive things we do to kill time and instead become moral investments. I’ve talked before on The Plural of You about how intent is what gives meaning to everything that we as humans do, and the ways in which Miracle Messages uses social media are a perfect example of this.
Kevin also got me thinking about the concept of home. What is home, and what exactly is lost when someone becomes homeless? I’ve done a bit of reading about this, and for me, I think home refers to our sense of identity and our sense of normalcy, and it’s usually fixed in a geographic place like a house. There’s also a notion of ownership or at least a sense of territory involved. I should note here that geographers and philosophers often distinguish a place as a physical space that has social or psychological attachments, and those can vary from person to person.
I assume most of us have heard the adage that people make a house a home or something to that effect, and it’s true that we base much of who we are on those that we share our surroundings with. In most cases, these are family members, but what if you don’t have a roof to sleep under or if you live apart from loved ones for a long period of time? One study of people experiencing homelessness in Australia found that those without homes often base what home means to them on the problems of residing in public places and on their feelings of disconnection from society, which suggests that home can be positive, negative, or something inbetween. In other words, having housing can allow us to feel safer and more in control of our lives, but having a positive notion of home also suggests a sense of welcomeness and belonging. Although I’ve never experienced homelessness myself, I imagine it would be tough to maintain a happy outlook on life if I didn’t feel I belonged somewhere, or if I was separated from where I felt I belonged.
I’d also like to point out that the concept of home can vary between cultures. I’ve seen publications that reference the effects of concepts like gender, class, age, health, and nationality on our ideals of what home is. So yeah: I know it’s obvious, but home is more complex than just a space to sleep, store your stuff, or to call your own. Keep that in mind whenever you see or read or hear a discussion about homelessness in the future.
So back to Kevin. Kevin’s a busy guy, but he was able to talk en route to a flight in San Francisco on the day after Thanksgiving in the US. This conversation will sound a little different because of that, and I hope the noise won’t bother you. I’ve been impressed with what he and his organization have been doing for a while now, so I’m humbled that he squeezed some time in to talk with me. Here’s Kevin Adler, the founder of Miracle Messages.
Interview with Kevin Adler
JM: Morning, Kevin.
KA: Hey, Josh. How are you?
JM: I’m great. I was going to ask: How much time do we have? I know you have a flight to catch here pretty soon.
KA: Yeah, but my flight’s not until 9:50. I already checked in. It should be pretty much fine. I’d probably say a half-hour is solid.
JM: Okay. Just curious: Where are you going?
KA: I’m headed to Chicago. My dad moved there recently. My brother and I are going to fly from our respective places to have a semblance of a family Thanksgiving, which we haven’t had in a few years.
JM: Oh, that’ll be nice.
KA: Yeah, I can’t wait.
JM: So I discovered you and your work because of Miracle Messages. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that project. What’s the purpose behind it?
KA: Absolutely. Miracle Messages helps homeless individuals record short video messages to their long-lost loved ones. We try to deliver those video messages on social media as a way of reuniting families that haven’t seen each other sometimes in 20, 30, 40 years.
JM: What gave you the idea to do that?
KA: My uncle, Mark, was homeless. He lived on and off the streets for about 30 years. It happened with a visit to his gravesite. He passed away, and my dad and I visited the site. I never realized he had a gravesite. I guess my dad and my other uncle had purchased a plot. When I asked my dad about that, he said that it was important for him that Mark’s memory wasn’t lost from this Earth. As poignant as that is, I thought here’s this little stone marker that doesn’t tell me anything else about who this person was, how they saw they world, how the world saw him. Yet, I’ll go back into the car, pull out my phone when we’re on the way home, and I’ll see every update and every story from every acquaintance I’ve ever met on Facebook and different social media.
It got me thinking about how the tools that we use for storytelling may not extend to people who are on the periphery of society, such as my beloved uncle. I started thinking, ‘How can we repurpose tools like wearable cameras, social media, and smartphones to help humanize and potentially make an impact in the lives of our homeless neighbors in need?’
JM: What about your background helped inform your decision to go through this process?
KA: It’s a great question. I think everyone is born with some kind of superpower. A big part of life is figuring out what your superpower is. Another part of life is figuring out how to use it. If I am so lucky to have one superpower, it would be that I never learned the word “stranger”. The way I was raised, small town, small family—
JM: Where are you from originally?
KA: I’m from Livermore, California—just a general outlook, world view, to see everyone as someone’s somebody, someone’s brother or sister, and seeing them as an extension of my own family. I start with that because even the work I did in college and grad school, studying social capital, looking at how disasters and shared traumas can bring people together and increase our sense of trust, our sense of togetherness and civic engagement. All of that is informed by this mindset that we’re all connected, we’re all in this together.
I think that plus the research I’ve done academically, then the projects I’ve lead before, the ventures I’ve lead as an entrepreneur, those inform my outlook. [That has] allowed me to do this kind of project with the homeless using a bit of technology to help them be seen and make an immediate, tangible impact in their lives by way of reconnecting them to their basic social capital: their family, close friends, and structures.
JM: What would you consider your primary career? Would you say you have a day job?
KA: Well, I certainly keep busy through the day. I think personal and professional are pretty intertwined for me. I’m an entrepreneur and I’m a sociologist. Miracle Messages started as a side project. Over the course of the last few months, it’s started to pick up. I’m doing that more and more full-time.
I also spent this past summer at NASA as part of a program called Singularity University. We spent ten weeks with 80 people from 45 countries looking at how exponential technologies can act as a catalyst to impact a billion lives in ten years as the goal. The reason I mention that is I started a company out of that called Anyone, which is a research platform to interview anyone in the world with the push of a button from your smartphone.
I have a bit of tech startup, a bit of social impact, social movement work in my repetoire.
JM: Just to clarify, what is exponential technology? I’ve never heard of that term.
KA: Exponential technologies, a few examples of them today would be artificial intelligence, drones, robotics, nanotechnology. It’s cutting edge stuff, but the idea of exponential technology is the price is declining while the productivity is increasing rapidly. Modern computing is certainly an exponential technology, Moore’s Law: the number of transistors on a microchip doubling every 1 1/2 years or whatever it happens to be now. There’s an opportunity when you’re building where the hockey puck is going rather than where it’s at now. By understanding what technologies exist that may be too expensive or out of reach today but within the next few years could be commonplace, that’s what we’re building.
JM: Given all of these ventures and such that you’re involved in, why focus on Miracle Messages?
KA: You ever have one of those things that’s inside of you that you’re just like, ‘Gosh, I really gotta do this because no one else is’? ‘Who knows if it makes sense or not.’ That’s my experience with Miracle Messages. We raised a little bit of money on Indiegogo. At that time, it was framed as 100 stories, we’ll capture 100 stories across the US. I’ve now converted that a bit to 100 reunions. That’s what I’m committed to.
My goal is not to travel across the country for the rest of my life doing my work. It’s to create a bit of infrastructure so that people in their own communities can help the homeless neighbors that they have reconnect to their loved ones. We’re starting to see that. We have people coming out. We had a reconnection in San Diego recently. We have chapters popping up in Arizona, Vermont, where people see the work. They say, “Wait, I can do this in my own community,” and they start doing it.
I see the future of this as helping to facilitate 100 reunions as well as developing a TV show that’s a better alternative to reality TV, that’s engaging but also socially impactful and community enabled. The stories don’t exist unless people Like and Share these Miracle Messages. It makes a Like and a Share meaningful, perhaps one of the few things that does that.
I think more broadly, we are at this interesting moment in terms of the content that we capture on our phones. We’ve been trained to fixate our cameras on the sames images, the spectacle. You’re at the concert and you capture the stage. You’re at the papal ascendancy of Pope Francis and you focus your camera on that. These are blurry images, these are trite. Everyone is capturing it their own way, it’s already being captured professionally.
What these devices enable us to do is turn the camera to the person next to us or even on ourselves and say, “Well, what brought you here? What’s your story? How did you end up here?” I think there’s an exciting possibility in trans-media, digital storytelling that’s not yet been explored, that I think this is on the pioneering edge of.
JM: That’s so interesting. I guess I never thought about social media being used that way. That’s an interesting approach.
KA: There’s a great photo. It’s says 2005 and 2013. It’s two images, top and bottom. The top one, 2005, is when Pope Benedict became Pope. It’s showing all of the people in The Vatican watching as he’s becoming the Pope. It’s a sea of people, onlookers, maybe a few flip phones that are opened, but pretty much just people watching the spectacle. Then, in 2013 for Pope Francis, it’s this sea of screens. They’re all locked on the same thing. It’s amazing: as far as the eye can see, it’s screen, screen, screen.
I wondered, ‘Who are these videos for? What are you trying to capture? Are you capturing this because everyone else is capturing it the same way?’ How much more interesting if just one of those people turned to the nun or the worshippper next to them from probably far-gone lands and asked them, “What brought you here? Why are you here? What was the cost? What’s your story?” That’s so much more interesting to me.
JM: Yeah, I agree with that.
When you had the original idea for Miracle Messages, what kind of scale did you have in mind?
KA: That’s a good question. We were doing something a little different before with various volunteers called Homeless GoPro. The idea was homeless volunteers would wear wearable cameras to see the world through their eyes. We got a lot of media attention, those videos—the first couple went kind of viral. We started doing that pretty regularly. We had maybe fifteen different homeless people volunteer at different times, but there wasn’t the followup from the media.
The impact model was predicated on a lot of eyeballs watching those videos. The media could care less about the actual stories. They just liked the novelty of it, like “Homeless person wearing wearable camera, tech worker doing it.” I got tired of the kind of sensational thing, the pursuit of more media coverage. That wasn’t what we were about, and I wanted to make a more immediate, tangible impact in the lives of our homeless neighbors.
Voice: God bless you.
KA: Thank you, God bless you. Miracle Messages is the name of it. Check it out.
Voice: That’s wonderful.
KA: Yeah, thanks.
The Uber driver just told me God bless me, so I had to thank her for that.
JM: Aw! [laughs]
KA: She’s like, “I like what you’re doing!” [laughs]
JM: That’s great.
KA: We were able to make a little bit of a difference, but it wasn’t so impactful. At the holidays, about a year ago exactly, I was like, ‘Alright. I’m going to take a walk down Market Street. Every homeless person I see, I’m going to ask if they would like to leave a holiday message for a loved one.’
We had heard over and over again that, even though the reasons for homelessness are as unique as the individuals who are homeless, the refrain we heard over and over again was “I never considered myself homeless when I lost my housing. I considered myself homeless when I lost the family and friends to support me.” That just rung true. Here I am, a sociologist studying social capital, doing social ventures, seeing everyone as family. It was like, ‘Why can’t we help restore that in places where it can be restored, or at least start building that anew?’ I had no idea what to expect.
I know with some of the autobiographers we worked with in Homeless GoPro, helping them hop on a phone call with a family member they hadn’t talked to in three or four years was some of the most impactful storytelling. It was like, ‘Well, maybe there’s other people who haven’t talked with their loved ones.’ No idea if that was true or not.
We met a guy, Jeffrey, who as it turned out hadn’t seen his sister, his niece or nephew, or father in 22 years. Just sitting there in broad daylight, talking, having a conversation, he records a heartfelt video to them. We post that video online that night, no idea where to post it. He told me where he’s from, I took down whatever information I thought might be helpful, and posted it. He’s from a town called Montoursville, Pennsylvania. I posted it in the “You Know You’re From Mountoursville If…” Facebook group, which every community in the US has—I can’t believe it—and then the police department, the Montoursville Police Department. They both posted it on our behalf.
Within an hour, the post was shared hundreds of times, Liked hundreds of times. Within a few hours, his sister was tagged in the post. That night, it made the local news. It made the news the following night. The town was so moved by the story, they held two fundraisers and raised over $5,000. The Congressman got involved and said if he comes home, he has free healthcare. Friends from high school came out of the woodwork and said, “Hey, this guy was a good friend of mine. He always will have a job in construction if he comes back.”
Two weeks later, a gentleman named Marty, who’s from Montoursville living in San Francisco four blocks from where we filmed, was like, “Hey! I recognize that spot. That’s four blocks from my house.” He walks over, sees Jeffrey, calls me up. Within a few more minutes, he’s on a phone call with his sister. Not only had they not talked in 22 years, he had been a missing person for twelve years. People didn’t know if he was alive, if he’s dead, if he’s in jail, what’s the story, and here he is. He’s missing in broad daylight. That was pretty incredible.
I’m pragmatic, I’m idealistic, but I can also be skeptical. I’m like, “Okay. Can we actually do this again?” We went to St. Anthony’s Foundation, made an announcement, had a guy named Johnny who hadn’t seen his brothers and sisters in 33 years, had been a missing person for 20 years. In under three weeks, all four of them, brothers and sisters, the siblings as well as the kids, flew our from across the country and reunited in person in San Francisco.
JM: That’s so great. I’m sure you have plenty of other stories like this, especially if you’re shooting for the hundred reconnections like this. That’s so great.
KA: Yeah. I’ll say, the reunions—sometimes they happen like Johnny’s, where the families have been looking for them desperately for decades. Sometimes there’s relational brokenness. The families may not want to reconnect, or there’s past grievances that need to be dealt with. We’re cognizant of all of that.
Our philosophy is each person has a truth that they have a right to share with the world. In the case of a homeless person, if they want to say hello and they want to say I love you to a long-lost loved one, they have the right to do that. They have the right to be seen. For the loved ones, they have the right to respond, not respond, or do whatever they want to do. We invite them to record a Miracle Message back to the homeless person that we can share with them. If they don’t want to do that, that’s okay.
We can’t fix past relational brokenness. All we can do is give people an opportunity to once again be a family and start the healing process. If they want to do that, they can. If they don’t, we respect that.
JM: How are the volunteers that you’re working with as well as the partner organizations—how are they helping to make all of this possible?
KA: Partner organizations are absolutely crucial. We have now partnered with about 25 organizations. Their main collaboration is that we will show up, make an announcement, and anyone who’s interested in recording a Miracle Message or reconnecting to a loved one, we can do that on the spot. From there, whomever is our contact at the organization is the go-to person for local volunteers. If other people want to show up, help make an announcement, and record some of these Miracle Messages, they can do that.
It’s also the followup, so when we have a homeless person, we need to reach them again. Sometimes they don’t have cell phones, sometimes they don’t have email. If they are going to do a reunion, making sure they are mentally stable enough to maybe get on a plane or get on a bus, helping them with ID cards. Partners are absolutely essential.
For volunteers, they are also important. It’s really two primary volunteer outlets. There’s the recording of the Miracle Messages themselves, and there’s the detective work online, trying to deliver the Miracle Messages, which involves sometimes doing a little research, sharing posts, making phone calls. We have people helping in both of those areas.
JM: Can anyone around the country volunteer? Is there a set of criteria that you have in place to help these people if they are interested?
KA: Yeah. If you go to our website, which is miraclemessages.org, we have information on there about how to help both deliver these Miracle Messages as well as get started with a local chapter. What we’ve found is, if you really want to do the recordings locally, it helps a great deal to have an organizational partner just to have—you’re not on your own, you’re part of a community, you’re part of a local group.
JM: Oh, that’s good. I’m glad you do that.
KA: Yeah. At this point, I’m pretty comfortable walking up to homeless people on the street and doing it in the real world, away from an organization. You have to really use your discretion and you have to know the kinds of areas where you can approach people. If you’re walking around a park in the evening, you’re essentially going into someone’s house and talking to someone who may not want to be talked to about an emotional thing that they may not want to think about. That can be complicated, and we don’t want to endanger people.
We have a four-point mantra for volunteers. Point number one is “Be safe.” You’re no good if you’re endangering yourself or anyone else. We do that, and right now we’re in the middle. We’ve had hundreds of people reach out, wanting to get involved in the organization. We’re in the process of trying to on-board people, do what we can to be both sustainable and build up the core capacity while still focusing on the immediate work at hand, and not getting too big too quickly.
JM: That’s good too, yeah.
What are some things you’ve learned about issues surrounding homeless that maybe you weren’t aware of before you started all of this?
KA: Sure. Can I rattle off a few surprises in terms of statistics and then dive deeper?
JM: Of course, sure.
KA: So 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness each year. Half of them are kids. That’s one percent of the population, which is mind-boggling. I’ve seen before that 1 out of every 3 Americans are one or two paychecks away from homelessness. Again, that’s not the family and friends support. That doesn’t mean they’d become homeless, but just financially.
The cost of homeless is outrageous. Even if you could care less about homeless people, and you say they’re all bums and addicts. If you just look at the costs, it’s about $18,000 to have someone in supportive housing for a year. It’s about $60,000 to have them on the street. That’s emergency services, that’s cleanup, sanitation, police, fire, health issues.
It’s a nuisance and a bad situation for everyone, so it’s ridiculous. There’s no way in the United States of America we should have one percent of the population living on the streets, in shelters, or in their cars at any point during the year. There’s always going to be episodic homelessness: big downturn in the economy, natural disaster hits, these things happen. That’s cyclical, that’s part of life, it’s episodic.
In terms of chronic homelessness, we can end it. It’s not rocket science. I think to end homelessness requires a top-down and a bottom-up approach. The top-down approach is supportive housing first. Up until the last ten years, up until the early 2000s, the prevailing mindset in the homeless service community and among government agencies was that homeless people needed to stabilize, get off addictions, get themselves mentally fit before getting into permanent housing. That’s turned out to be ridiculous because, if you’re on the streets, you aren’t stable, you aren’t taking a shower every day, you’re not able to use the bathroom when you need to, it’s pretty traumatic. It’s unlikely that you’re able to get better before you get worse.
Supportive housing first has been proven to work, and that’s not just housing. That’s providing psychiatrists, nurses, and health care professionals. Again, $18,000 a year. Supportive housing first works. The problem is there’s often not a political will to build the housing stock. You have to have local people, citizens, government, private industry, real estate developers work together, which is a challenge.
In terms of what people can do, I believe it’s this bottom-up approach instead of always focusing on the physiological needs and at the base of Maslow’s pyramid—people need housing, people need shelter, people need food, people need water. To reduce me to just a needy person in terms of physiological sense takes away from the complete person that I already am.
JM: That’s a great point.
KA: What we can do is we can start at the top of Maslow’s pyramid, stop reducing homeless people to what they’re lacking—”I lack housing, so I’m homeless”—and start seeing them as complete human beings in need of and capable of offering love, emotional support, talents, self actualization, all of the things we’re much better equipped to provide for each other as human beings. That, to me—whether it’s helping to record Miracle Messages and helping homeless people reunite with long-lost loved ones, or whether it’s having conversations, making friends, whatever it is, there’s gotta be a better approach to how we interface with the homeless beyond throwing a few dollars here and there or a ladel of soup on Thanksgiving.
JM: I have so many questions I want to ask, but I know you’ve got to get going.
KA: Well, I can talk more. I would just have to go through security.
JM: You can go through security, if you’d like.
KA: Let me do that, just to make sure. I can stand at the gate and watch things. I’ll give you a call back.
JM: Okay, that’ll be fine.
JM: Alright, sounds good.
KA: Okay. Bye.
JM: Kevin and I talked for a few more minutes after he passed through security. I’m paraphrasing a bit, but he said he was grateful to have a great life and a strong sense of home, and he wanted to provide those things for others. He also said he was excited about the role that technology could play in making that happen.
I hope you’ll check out Miracle Messages. They’re on Facebook /miraclemessages and Twitter @miraclemsg, and the website is miraclemessages.org. Thanks again for making time to talk with me, Kevin. I really appreciate it.
Conclusion by Josh Morgan
This episode of The Plural of You was produced by me, Josh Morgan, in cozy Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music.
You can find show notes, past episodes, and other resources at PluralofYou.org. You can keep in touch and read other stories about the helpers of the world on Facebook and Twitter at PluralofYou. Subscribe by searching for The Plural of You wherever you get your podcasts. If you’re listening through iTunes, please take a couple of minutes and leave a review for The Plural of You because it’ll help others find it, too.
If you liked this episode, check out Episode 4 with Elizabeth Buehler, the Homeless Services Coordinator in Salt Lake City. You can find that at pluralofyou.org/004.
In closing, here’s a homework assignment.
If you don’t like how negative your social media feeds are, or the news in general, it’s up to you to do something about it. The next time something bothers you that you’re watching or reading or listening to, look for something a little less pessimistic to share. If you need resources, check out any of the guests or organizations that have appeared on The Plural of You, including Miracle Messages. The purpose isn’t to be blindly optimistic about humanity: just to make people less pessimistic about one another. That’s going to take time, and it’s going to take little things like putting positive stories in our friends’ feeds to make that happen.
That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.