As far as Jeffrey Gottshall's family knew, he'd been missing for more than 20 years.
He left his home in Montoursville, Penn. when he was 20 and has been documented as a missing person by authorities in Pennsylvania. But 2,747 miles away in the bustling town of San Francisco, Gottshall is seen everyday.
The 44-year-old man is one of the thousands of homeless people who populate Market Street in San Francisco. Gottshall is a fixture in a community that struggles to confront the growing homeless community.
But, as one local media company has discovered, there is
a way to help homeless people get off the streets — and not just for a night or two. All it takes is a smartphone, a Facebook account, and a few minutes out of your day.
, the same local company that started the Homeless POV project last year, equipping homeless people with GoPro cameras, spent the Christmas holidays walking up and down Market Street, offering homeless people some tea and the chance to say a message to their loved ones via video. Kevin Adler, founder of NearShot, says he and one of his volunteers came across Gottshall who agreed to send a shout out to his family who he had not been in touch with for more than a decade.
"Jeffrey left a short message
to his father and family and niece and nephew — he mentioned them by name," Adler tells us.
Afterward, Adler posted the video to Facebook, and reached out to organizations and the Police Department in Montoursville, with some hope that Jeffrey's family might see it. They too posted the message from Gottshall on their Facebook page.
Little did Adler know that this Christmas video would become a life-changing moment for Gottshall and his long-lost family.
"It blew up," Adler says. "Within an hour it had been shared hundreds of times and within 20 minutes, his sister was tagged in the post. Many people said 'I know this guy from high school.'"
The Montoursville community, where Gottshall grew up, came together and began a fundraising campaign to bring Jeffrey home to his family (to date, $5,000 has been raised
). His very-shocked sister, Jennifer, and her kids made their own video to her brother, and contacted Adler in hopes that he could pass it along to him.
Meanwhile, Gottshall, who is known to hang out near Old Navy on Market Street, had no idea all of this was happening. Unbelievably, someone from his hometown, who also happened to live a few blocks from where the video was shot in San Francisco, found Gottshall again, sitting along Market Street, and contacted Adler. "We shared the video message with Jeffrey — he had not seen his niece or nephew ever," Adler says.
Needless to say, Gottshall was floored. And motivated to go home.
"In San Francisco, he is perceived as just another homeless man, but for the Montoursville community, he's a classmate, a friend, a brother, an uncle — he's somebody," Adler says. "Our work is trying to help these individuals be defined by more than what they lack."
Gottshall is very keen on taking up his sister on her offer to return home. However, there are logistical issues that need to be worked out first. For starters, Gotshall has a substance abuse problem and he's on parole, Adler says. However, local police, who say they see him every single day, have been working with Adler's organization to see if there's a way to transfer his parole terms to Pennsylvania. In addition, there are other terms he must agree to in order to return home: Gottshall will have to be admitted into a substance abuse center.
Watching this one video from Jeffrey evolve into an unthinkable family reunion has persuaded Adler to continue with this project: connecting homeless people with loved ones via YouTube.
"We will do it over and over again," Adler says. "We just finished a crowdfunding campaign to curate homeless stories across America, so I'll be hitting the road soon."
Just the other day, another homeless woman he had filmed over Christmas asked Adler to share her own video message online, hoping she, too, could find her loved ones.
"If we want to humanize people, it means making the connection," Adler says. "And at the heart is family and close friends, so it makes sense to start rebuilding that way."