Gregory’s smile was like none other. It’s mesmerizing. Gregory is a gentle giant in his early 40s. Big and tall, he is a man of very few words. The day I met him he was with a homeless person that we know that had been trying to help him since the afternoon before. My friend was having a rough time taking care of Gregory because he had a voracious appetite and none of the places that served food were open. He quickly ate several granola bars that I had in my pack on my bicycle.
Gregory is also a man with special needs with no identification of any kind. He is developmentally disabled. His intellectual abilities are equal to someone 4 or 5 years old. We started calling around to see if anyone knew anything about him. It was like he didn’t exist. There was no record of him anywhere. We tried desperately to figure where he had come from, how he got here, anything. He had not been reported as a missing person, at least that’s what we thought at first.
Gregory quickly wandered away from the place where we were able to get him temporarily housed. We went out looking for him but he was nowhere to be found. Then a local car dealership called and said there is a guy here eating all the donuts in the break room. The sales manager said, “He has your card. That’s why we called. He says his name is Gregory.”
I hurried over to pick him up and took him back to where we had him housed. He wasn’t there but a few hours and slipped away again. A couple of days later an agency in San Diego found him on the streets. Same story, he had my card, they called for information. They had some good news though, he had casually offered up the name of the place where he had been staying in Los Angeles. It turned out to be a board and care in downtown that catered to special needs individuals. They had made arrangements for him to be transported there. He was going to be off the streets and safely at his real home soon. But this is not the end of the story.
His caseworker in downtown L.A. called back a few days later offering more information about Gregory and to make a request. He shared with us that Gregory often inverts his middle and last name, that’s why we couldn’t find him in the system. He also said that Gregory keeps asking for you and wants to come back to Santa Monica to see you. He said, “We are afraid that he will get away from us and try to find you. Is there any way that you could just call and talk to him, try to convince him to stay put?”
So I called him. In the conversation Gregory asked me if I could come visit him. He also asked if I could take him to get Popeye’s chicken for lunch sometime. I told him that I would work on it and call him back. I called his caseworker and we scheduled a time a couple of weeks out for me to come over, pick him up and take him to Popeye’s.
From then on I had a buddy. We figured it out that as long as Gregory had something to look forward too, he was stable, no wandering. Once a month for eight months I would pick up Gregory, ride through the drive-thru at Popeye’s, take the food back to his small apartment and have lunch around his kitchen table.
Gregory had a phone in his room. He called me once a day, every day. He always reminded me of exactly how many days it was until I was to come over and get him. Our conversations were always short and to the point. He would briefly tell me his plans for the rest of that day and that was it. The calls never lasted for more than a few minutes, my visits never more than an hour. Gregory would have me mark a large calendar that he had for the date of my next visit before I left.
His caseworker told me that they really didn’t know a lot about Gregory. He knew that Gregory had been in the social service system in L.A. for years. He had not been with their agency that long. Gregory would occasionally talk about having a mother, brothers and sisters. He never offered enough detail to put it all together, until one day when we were having lunch.
As we were eating Gregory said, “I was born in St. Louis.” “Are you sure?” I asked him. He casually replied, “Yeah, St. Louis.” I called his caseworker as soon as I got back to Santa Monica and asked if he had ever heard him mention St. Louis before. It was news to him. I asked his worker if he would mind if I did some research to see if anyone knew anything about him there.
I called and talked with mental health in St. Louis. The next day someone called me back. Gregory had wandered away from a care facility there almost 10 years earlier. No one had heard from him since. Gregory had been found!
Turns out that Gregory came from a large, very loving family. Soon I was getting calls from multiple family members in St. Louis. Everybody wanted to know how he had survived so well, how he got to Los Angeles, and everyone wanted him home. I shared with his family that we had figured out that as long as he had something that he liked to do to look forward to, he was content.
Each day, before Gregory left to be reunited with his family, he called to let me know how many days it was until he was leaving. He is safe, happy and with his family in St. Louis.
Ron Hooks is the founder and executive director of West Coast Care, a nonprofit. WCC is part of the Santa Monica Police Department’s Joint Homeless Outreach Program. Since October 2006, more than 1,000 homeless have been compassionately helped to transition off of the streets of Santa Monica by reconnecting them with their families, placing them into housing and/or treatment programs. Learn more at westcoastcare.org.