Speaker: Kevin Adler

Rebuilding Social Support Systems for the Homeless

Kevin F. Adler is a social entrepreneur dedicated to a world where everyone is seen as invaluable and interconnected. Adler is the Founder and CEO of Miracle Messages, a nonprofit that is working to end homelessness by rebuilding social support systems. Miracle Messages has been featured in The New York Times, National Public Radio, People, and NowThis, where one of its videos hit 26 million views. The goal of Miracle Messages is to reunite 1 million people by 2023.

A pre-cursor to Miracle Messages was Homeless GoPro, the inspiration for which Adler attributes to his Uncle Mark, who suffered from schizophrenia and lived on and off the streets and in and out of halfway houses for 30 years. Mark was his father’s brother. The most family-oriented member of the extended family, Uncle Mark remembered every birthday. The year before he died at the age of 50, he gave Adler an eagle bandana for his birthday. In November 2013, for the first time since he had passed away, Adler visited his uncle’s gravesite in Santa Cruz. “I didn’t even know he had a grave,” recalls Adler. “It’s just not where you really go and learn more about a person.” His dad and his other uncle refused to forget Mark and together bought a plot and headstone. After the visit, Adler pulled out his phone before driving away and saw status updates from friends. “I started thinking about the incongruence of a grave site visit as a way of telling a story. It just seemed that there’d be a way to bridge the use of technology for people in similar situations to Mark” when alive.

With a donated HERO3+Silver Edition from GoPro and volunteer Adam Reichart, Adler helped bring awareness of life on the street from the firsthand perspective of the homeless by letting Reichart tell his story. Homeless GoPro started with empathy, and began to evolve into Miracle Messages when Adler heard from one homeless person: “I never realized I was homeless when I lost my housing, only when I lost my family and friends who supported me.”

Adler says, “Each homeless participant has a different story. Some have struggled with addiction and mental illness, while others ended up on the street after losing their jobs or families,” in addition to eviction, sickness/health expenses, and domestic violence. Someone experiencing homelessness can easily lose touch with family friends because “relational brokenness is at the heart of homelessness: social disconnection is part of the experience. Along with this come feelings of shame, embarrassment, self-loathing, and uncertainty. A lack of reliable access to the internet and digital illiteracy combined with these emotional barriers keep many homeless individuals further isolated from their potential support systems.”

Adler makes the invisible visible through stories like that of his uncle, “I never saw him as a homeless man—he was my uncle…He remembered every birthday and was the guest of honor at Thanksgiving. It didn’t make sense to me why my uncle might be disregarded by society when he was so important to me.” After his uncle’s death in 2003, Adler “started saying hello and having conversations with people in similar situations—to hear their stories and to try to understand their world.”

In December 2014, he walked down Market Street in San Francisco asking homeless people if they would like to record a holiday message to a loved one using his phone. A man named Jeffrey said yes. Adler shared his video on Facebook, which went viral. Jeffrey’s sister was tagged within 20 minutes and weeks later, Jeffrey and his family reunited after 22 years. Adler was not sure if this kind of miracle could happen again so waited a few months before reaching out to the St. Anthony Foundation in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. The St. Anthony Foundation offers a way out of poverty and has been serving daily meals for 66 years. At a daily meal, Adler shared Jeffrey’s story and offered guests the chance to record their own messages. From this encounter, he met Johnny, who recorded a message. Within three weeks, he was reunited with his brothers and sisters for the first time in 33 years.

With deep compassion, Adler explains that it is the “social home” – a lack of stable housing, a loss of a social support system and a sense of belonging – that defines someone as homeless. It is connectivity that makes Miracle Messages successful. Adler connects us to the homeless through stories. “Homelessness is a very privatized, individualized trauma,” Adler says. “A person has gone through a lot probably to get in that situation. All we see is the outcome.” We do not see the person. Adler explains, “Neuroscience research has shown that the medial prefrontal cortex — the part of our brain that activates when we see a fellow human being as compared to an object — does not activate when we see a homeless person. As a result, we can walk by members of our own family and not recognize them if they appear homeless.” We perceive them as less than human. We know details about people on Facebook, but little about the 3.5 million Americans who have experienced homelessness.

It is this same level of compassion that Adler uses in talking about the success or failure of reunions. Adler explains that there is “relational brokenness” that cannot be fixed overnight. He can help with the communicational ties, but the relationship is up to the people involved. He respects and does not judge or criticize if a family does not want to reunite. However, the homeless are not anonymous nor should they be invisible. They are all someone’s sister, brother, mother, father, son, daughter, “someone’s somebody.” When we change how we view them and the issue, then we will change how we treat them.

Adler’s grounding in tenacity and compassion is no more evident than when talking about his own community in technology. Prior to Miracle Messages, Adler co-founded three edtech startups: alumn.us (a fundraising platform for underserved schools, acquired in 2013), Entangled Ventures (an edtech incubator), and BetterGrads (an online mentoring nonprofit).

From 2010-11, Kevin served as an Ambassador of Goodwill in Mexico for Rotary International. Kevin is the author of Natural Disasters as a Catalyst for Social Capital (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), a ground-breaking book that demonstrates the role of shared traumas in either bringing communities together or tearing them apart. His writing has been published in The New York TimesSan Francisco ChronicleChristian Science MonitorTechCrunch, and Cedar Rapids Gazette, as well as in two peer-reviewed edited volumes.  

Kevin holds an M. Phil. in Sociology from Cambridge University, and a B.A. in Politics from Occidental College, where he was the Culley Award recipient as the top graduating senior. He is a 2019 Presidential Leadership Scholar, and was a 2016 TED ResidentTED Speaker and has delivered keynotes or featured talks at Stanford, Microsoft, Singularity University, the Public Affairs Conference, and Zappos. In 2015, he was one of 80 people selected from 5000 applicants to attend Singularity University's Global Solutions Program at NASA. He has won MassChallenge, and has been named an American Express/Ashoka Emerging Innovator, New Leaders Council fellow, StartingBloc fellow, founding trustee of the Awesome Foundation-SF, and honorary lifetime member of the Rotary Club of Livermore Valley.

Through tenacity and technology, compassion and community, Adler is showing us we are invaluable and interconnected one story at a time. We are all invaluable, and we are all interconnected. Nobody should be defined by what they lack—even a home. For Adler, “Even one person experiencing homelessness is one child, sibling, parent or neighbor too many.” Everyone is someone’s somebody.

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