Story by Carmela Burke, Volunteer, Los Angeles, CA
As we were leaving their headquarters, the supervisor at the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority said “You’re going to be like detectives.”
Indeed, as caseworkers for the Restoring Family Links program of the American Red Cross, we pounded the pavement like detectives on behalf of someone in Cuba who wants to send a message to a family member in Los Angeles.
Restoring Family Links (RFL) is a worldwide network tasked to find family members internationally who have been separated due to war, disaster, migration, or other humanitarian emergencies. Often, amid confusion and chaos, the words “I am alive” may be all that is needed to ease the minds of loved ones. The global Red Cross Movement helps by reconnecting families.
The following is a summary of some of the work involved in this casework.
RFL staff at American Red Cross Headquarters in Washington, DC sent a Red Cross Message to caseworkers in Los Angeles. Red Cross Messages are used to facilitate communication of family news when normal means of connection are unavailable. Initial information given to caseworkers indicated that the sought person has mental health issues, and could be homeless, living in a shelter downtown.
During our team’s workgroup session on May 13, 2015, caseworkers continued the search by starting a phone-tree call-down of homeless shelters, mental health clinics, post offices and hospitals within the County. Many of the groups did not have the name of the person we were looking for in their database while some declined to provide information based on confidentiality issues. One agency confirmed that the person stayed at their facility until August 2014 after which they lost contact with the person.
After handling the search online and on the phone, the case required our volunteers to conduct the search on foot. On May 14, caseworkers Doug Wiita and Carmela Burke mapped their route to follow up on contact conversations and distribute RFL information.
First stop: Catholic Charities Brownson House, one of the community centers of Catholic Charities serving low-income and homeless individuals. While the database name search yielded no results, staff agreed to post information about our search.
Next Stop: Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) in the mid-Wilshire district. LAHSA is a city-county agency empowered to address homelessness in the city and county of Los Angeles. We were told that the person we were looking for is not in their directory of homeless individuals. In addition to the homeless shelters on downtown’s Skid Row, LAHSA suggested we contact the police department and county morgue.
Final stop: Skid Row, a 4-mile-54-block neighborhood in downtown Los Angeles. Several social service agencies are based in the area including the Weingart Center, Union Rescue Mission, Midnight Mission, and the Los Angeles Mission. In a July 2014 article in the Los Angeles Times, “local officials said in 2013 that 54,000 people in Los Angeles city and county were homeless.”
We walked to all the aforementioned Skid Row shelters. All but one agreed to scan their database as well as share information about RFL and our search. A shelter employee pointed out that the Los Angeles Mission might be a lead because of that shelter’s strong connection to the Cuban community.
At the Mission, search results found someone with the same last name but a different first name. The supervisor then asked one of the shelter workers if he had heard of the sought person. Our eyes lit up when the worker nodded “Si.” To verify, we asked the age of his friend. His approximation matched our information. The employee also knew of family abroad and that our sought person had run into some trouble with law enforcement.
Next step: Our RFL supervisor examined a State of California database of individuals incarcerated in state prisons and county jails. While there were several with the same name, none matched the other details related to our sought person. Caseworker Wiita said, “It is very difficult to locate a homeless person in Los Angeles. We intend to follow up with the District Attorney, Public Defender, and the Courts to continue to pursue other avenues of inquiry. We hope that we can indeed connect one family member to another.”
Searches like this are taking place all over the world. From Kenyan Red Cross volunteers biking through Dadaab refugee camp trying to reconnect loved ones with family scattered around the world; to German Red Cross workers searching for documentation on the fate of those who died during the Holocaust; to Mexican Red Crossers providing phone calls to migrants with no other way of communicating with their family – the Red Cross and Red Crescent is there to alleviate the human suffering caused by not knowing the whereabouts and wellbeing of loved ones.
Every year, the American Red Cross helps reconnect over 5,000 families. International Services caseworkers at the Los Angeles Region currently have at least 6 cases on their docket. For more information on Restoring Family Links and the International Services Program of the American Red Cross, visit redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies.
For involvement opportunities with the Los Angeles Region, visit www.redcrossla.org