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How One Woman's Search for Her Homeless Mother Became a Mission to Help Others

7 min
Robin Burton's search for her mother, presumed homeless in California, has morphed into a mission to serve as a guide for other families looking for their loved ones. She started a Facebook group called Missing & Homeless, followed by more than 60,000 people. (Courtesy of Fritz Faerber)

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rowing up, Robin Burton didn’t really know much about her mother, Cloudia Leslie Wells. "I was never told that my mom was mentally ill. My grandparents raised me, her mom and dad, and my mom would come home for a couple months and she'd be gone for a couple of years, and this was normal to me growing up," she said.

Burton was an adult by the time she learned her mom had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. That finally answered questions unanswered when her mom was breezing in and out of her life. Like many kids who don’t understand what they’re looking at when they’re looking at severe mental illness, little Robin came up with a story.

"I thought that she was living the life of the rich and famous, and didn't have time for me. That was so far from the truth," she said.

That was a sadness she learned to live with early in life. But when Burton was in her 20s, she lost her mom in a new and different way. First, her grandparents died. Then, when her mom swung through town, sometime around Christmas in 1994, and learned about their deaths, she left and didn’t come back. Ever.

"I was 23 whenever she went missing, and I'm 48 years old now," Burton said.

Schizophrenia can be a debilitating disease. There’s no known cure, though medications can help. "We don't know what it is. We don't know what causes it. I don't even know what the meaning of a cure would be," said Robert Rosenheck, professor of psychiatry and of health policy at the Yale School of Medicine.

A rare family photo of young Robin Burton with her mother, Cloudia Leslie Wells.
A rare family photo of young Robin Burton with her mother, Cloudia Leslie Wells. (Courtesy of Robin Burton)

Scientists do know schizophrenia affects people of every race, culture and economic class. Common symptoms include delusions, social withdrawal and an inability to cope with strong emotions. "Schizophrenia interferes with all areas of mental life. It makes it hard to think clearly. It makes people fearful, angry sometimes, and sometimes numb," Rosenheck added.

That’s why you see so many homeless people with schizophrenia. It’s hard for other people to connect with them and stay connected.

As the years wore on, Burton hired a private investigator to find Cloudia, though a lot of people told her to let it go. A lot of people tell her that now. But Burton won’t give up on the hope that Cloudia is still alive, and that there might be some benefit to seeing her again.

"I'm not here to judge my mom, and I'm not here to ask her any questions on why she didn't come home, or where she's been, because she has her own reasons. The only thing that I want to say to my mom whenever I find her is, ‘I love you.’ That means more to me than anything else in the world, is just for her to hear those three words: 'I love you.' ”

The question is, how to find her?

The First Trip to California

Burton lives in Collinsville, Illinois. "I work at Geico. I’m an insurance agent. I also bartend on the weekends," at a popular local watering hole called Ardie and Tiny’s.

One evening, almost five years ago, Burton was working at that bar, "and it was a slow night, and I had a phone call from my private investigator, and he had told me that he doesn't know how he missed it. But my mom's Social Security number was used at a homeless shelter in 2013."

It was a homeless shelter in Santa Monica, California, roughly 2,000 miles from Collinsville.

Burton explained, "I didn't think a whole lot of it because I've been on wild goose chases before. I told a customer, just for small talk, about the phone call conversation. Unbeknownst to me, that customer went home and started Googling the Web. Two days later, he called me on the phone and he said, ‘Robin, I need your email address. There’s something I want you to look at.’ "

It was a 2014 article from the Los Angeles Times, talking about the annual point-in-time count of the local homeless population. There was one photograph up top, of a homeless woman on the street.  "I knew immediately that it was her. Because your eyes don’t change."

Burton called up the L.A. Times, and the reporter put Burton in touch with the photographer, who said the photo was taken one year before the article was written.

"January 2013 in Santa Monica, California, the exact same place and area my mom’s Social Security number was used. In the same year. And that was all the confirmation I needed, 'cause I already knew it was her," Burton said.

That tip was 2 years old, but she decided to chase it down anyway. She set up a Go Fund Me page to get help paying for a rental car to get to California, and for a motel room to stay in when she got there.

A local Fox News outlet broadcast a set-up story the night before Burton left for L.A. By then, Burton had talked with a police officer at the LAPD, who told her Cloudia had been sighted on L.A.’s skid row. Burton told Fox, "I’m not scared of skid row. That’s not my biggest fear. My biggest fear is my mom not wanting to come back with me. Alls I know is I have to find her. I gotta let her know I love her."

Lessons Learned on Skid Row

A woman passes a wheelchair-bound homeless man on Spring Street on May 1, 2017, in Los Angeles. The 2017 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count indicated a dramatic jump of 20 percent in the city of Los Angeles, while Los Angeles County has spiked 23 percent. (David McNew/Getty Images)

There has been a skid row in Los Angeles since the late 19th century. There have been attempts to clear out the poverty and crime from this square mile in the heart of downtown since the 1950s.

But it’s never looked as bad as it does in modern times: a tent city of roughly 4,000 people has sprung up on these sun-baked concrete sidewalks, crawling with rats and bedbugs, reeking with the smell of human urine and feces.

Robin arrived in 2015 carrying a box of candy bars wrapped with her mom’s picture, but she made a critical mistake. She brought along another TV camera crew.

People on the streets were not happy to see that, or her. "The very first day out there was very scary and emotional for me. I broke down crying. I had to leave. I had to leave and I had to go back to my motel and take a deep breath and re-evaluate."

Back in the motel room, Burton decided she needed to try again, in a different way. "Without the cameras, everything was so different. and it was actually the homeless that was helping me look for my mom. It was them that was telling me, ‘You know I wish I had somebody looking for me.’ "

You could imagine Cloudia visiting a place like the Downtown Women's Center. Homeless and near-homeless women from all over Southern California come here looking for help for a range of problems.

"We serve about 4,000 women a year and it’s very fairly infrequent that we see them reunify. It’s really probably only about five a year," said chief program officer Erika Hartman, who betrays in her voice a certain exhaustion at the very idea of what sounds like a much desired fairy-tale ending.

"Usually, at the point that they have come to skid row, they have really run out of other connections that they can turn to. Sometimes, it’s because they’ve really exhausted their relationships with people who are trying support them. Or who have set boundaries due to substance use. Lots of women report experiencing shame about homelessness," Hartman said.

Even with help, three weeks passed with no sign of Cloudia. Some people told Burton they believed Cloudia must be dead. Whatever the case, Burton needed to go back home and get back to work.

That spring, Burton started a Facebook group called Missing & Homeless. The concept is simple: post a person’s story, with enough details and photos, in the hopes somebody in the group will recognize that missing person and help put them in touch with the family looking for them.

"They're not a piece of garbage, you know. They're somebody’s mother. They're somebody son. They're somebody's sister."

One of numerous posters Robin Burton has drawn up over the years in the search for her mother, believed to be homeless somewhere in California.
One of numerous posters Robin Burton has drawn up over the years in the search for her mother, believed to be homeless somewhere in California. (Courtesy of Robin Burton)

An Education in Finding People

Robin said she functions like a reporter when a family contacts her for help. She presses them for more information. Where, exactly, did the person go missing? Are there any distinguishing characteristics, like eye color or tattoos? Do they suffer from mental illness or addiction?

The details make it easier to find somebody, but they also emotionally engage the Facebook group members. As opposed to say, some generic post about a Jane Doe.

"I had no idea when I started 'Missing & Homeless' what it was going to become, and how many followers and supporters that we were gonna have. Then we started finding people. Four years later, we have probably found 70 or 80 people," Burton said.

It turns out a lot of the group’s 63,000 members are homeless themselves, typically logging into Facebook at public libraries — in part because they don’t have any barriers precluding them from getting involved.

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Burton has had a number of frustrating conversations with health care providers and social service workers who won’t say boo about someone who friends and family are searching for.

"You can walk into a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen and they will not tell you if they're there. My mom could be in the same building as me and I would never even know it. It's heartbreaking, whenever you have a family member that is missing and living homeless, the lack of help that you get because of it," Burton said.

There’s a very big reason why most social workers and health care providers would not tell Robin if her mom was in a particular building. It’s against federal law, specifically, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. HIPAA, as most people call it, has a provision that protects the privacy of individuals' medical records, including the fact of a person’s presence in a facility.

Hartman of the Downtown Women’s Center explained staff are happy to take a message and pass it on. But it’s the homeless person’s choice whether to connect. Always. In part, because they can’t presume the best about people who say they’re searching for a loved one.

"We have women who have been trafficked or abused or exploited by family members," Hartman said. "Many of them don’t list an emergency contact. We have women who pass and we don’t know how to find a next of kin."

In other words, many of these women have good reasons they don’t want to be found. Burton gets that. She’s also seen enough to know some people are just too far gone into the abyss of mental illness, or addiction, or both.

"I had a lady that was looking for her son that was schizophrenic, and he was found after, after five or six years, and she didn't recognize him at first. You know, because the streets weather you. You change drastically. He didn't recognize her either, and he said, ‘You're not my mom.’ He's missing again," Burton said.

So far, we’ve been presuming that the right homeless person has been correctly identified. Sometimes, people eager to help say they’ve seen someone they actually haven’t.

It happened to Burton, just weeks after she returned home from skid row that first time. A volunteer from the Downtown Women's Center called Burton to say Cloudia was there.

Burton bought a plane ticket. She was sitting on that plane ahead of takeoff, when she got another call saying the volunteer was mistaken. The timing was such that Burton flew to L.A. and back: an expensive, useless and emotionally painful trip.

Now, that wouldn’t stop Burton from recommending families make every effort to file missing person reports, and take all the other recommended steps. Because the wins, when they happen, are so satisfying.

A former workmate of Corey Abernathy's asked his parents for permission to post this on the Facebook group "Missing & Homeless." That's how a housemate of Abernathy's in San Francisco spotted it, and told him, and he called his parents after a radio silence of two years.
A former workmate of Corey Abernathy asked his parents for permission to post this on the Facebook group "Missing & Homeless." That's how a housemate of Abernathy's in San Francisco spotted it, and told him, and he called his parents after a radio silence of two years. (Courtesy of Corey Abernathy)

A Win in San Francisco

Corey Abernathy, and his parents, Cathy and Robert Abernathy, agreed to meet me on a bright, breezy day at one of his favorite haunts in San Francisco: Crissy Field. When he was homeless, Corey used to camp in the Presidio, not far from where tourists whiz by on their rented bicycles and children eat ice cream while wearing fleece jackets.

"I just thought too much about life. I felt a lot of pressure," Corey said. He's 5-foot-9. About 160 pounds. Hair and beard close-cropped. His blue eyes twinkle in the sun. He looks like he’s gotten a lot of sun in recent years, but nothing that seems out of the ordinary for an athletic white man in his early 30s.

Corey was 28 when he decided to throw on a backpack one day and leave his parents’ home in Willits in Mendocino County. With no warning, or explanation — though there were signs when the family looks back on it — that he wasn’t happy. That he was drifting.

"I just remember that there was like a weird amount of anxiety on me," Abernathy said. "I always tried to make sense of everything. I put too much pressure on myself that wasn’t really there. Yeah, the way I dealt with it was just drinking a lot."

He’d struggled with anxiety since childhood. He didn’t seem to have a strong idea for a career the way his older brother had. He dropped out of Sacramento State almost as soon as he got there. He lost a job in retail, then switched to a local casino. But there, he was surrounded by alcohol, and the consequences were predictable.

Corey started reading about people who dropped out of society for a different kind of life. "So it wasn’t like one single moment. It was something I was thinking about for probably like a year," he explained.

Then Corey got a DUI, something he was really ashamed about. He thought to himself, if he had no money, he wouldn’t be able to buy alcohol. And if he had nothing to worry about, he wouldn’t want to buy alcohol.

He explained, "My car got towed and I just said, ‘I’m done.’ At the time, it was a good feeling. I don’t have to deal with problems I can’t figure out anymore."

But remember, he was living with his parents at the time. And when he walked out that front door, he left no note. No explanation. His mom, Cathy, is a registered nurse. His dad, Robert, is a retired custom cabinetmaker.

His father recalled the day, "Got home and the house was empty. To me, it looked like he’d just walked out the door to go out for a walk. Everything was still in his room. Nothing disturbed. He just disappeared."

They called the police and filed a missing person’s report. Only to discover the police in Mendocino County have a loose attitude about adults who disappear, given the local marijuana growing industry’s reliance on seasonal workers. In this business, pruning is called “trimming,” and many of the trimmers come and go.

"In Mendocino County, Sonoma County if a adult is missing, they’re out trimming," Cathy said. "It was October and it was trimming season. They took the report, but they weren’t doing anything with it."

So Robert and Cathy had to start looking on their own. Corey’s friends helped. A former workmate tacking up a poster in Ukiah met a homeless person who directed them to Fort Bragg, where Robert and Cathy found Corey in a park, about six weeks after he disappeared. But Corey wouldn’t come back.

"I wasn’t ready to see them," he said.

Robert described his thinking in that moment, "As much as I wanted to grab him and throw him in the car, I knew he’d be gone again. So that was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make was to let him go."

So they did, and Corey kept hitchhiking, to Point Arena, Gualala and finally San Francisco — where he proceeded to bounce from sleeping rough in the Presidio to side streets and shelters, sporadically sending his parents Facebook messages from public libraries. Until he stopped doing that. The last one was in February 2016.

"I felt regret and guilt. I knew I was going to have to figure out a way to speak to them, and yeah, apologize," Corey said.

Every now and then, his parents would get a lead and take off to follow it, only to find it mistaken. Often, from somebody overcome with wishful thinking. A lot of guys on the street look like Corey. "OK, he’s here. He’s in Yuba City. He’s in Sacramento. Manteca. Denver. I mean, you name it, he was there," Robert said.

Weeks turned into months, and then years. Corey’s last messages came from San Francisco. So Robert and Cathy drove south repeatedly to scour the city’s Tenderloin on foot. "He could be on the next block over headed in the opposite direction, and we’d never know it. You know, there were days when we walked 25 miles," Robert said.

The night before Corey left his parents’ home in Willits, Cathy started having this recurring dream — nightmare, really.

In it, she keeps getting woken up by her nephew, Bobby, who committed suicide in 2010. It’s like he was a contact from the underworld, trying to tell her something about her son.

"He’d wake me up that, ‘We gotta get going.’ I was on the hard ground. I was cold. I wasn’t safe. I had to get moving. You know, we had to get moving," she recalled.

Then, at some point, the nightmares abruptly stopped. Cathy had two theories about what happened to Corey. "Maybe, you know, he’s getting his life together. Or he wasn’t on this earth anymore. You know, it was one of the two."

As it happened, this was right around the time Corey was ready for rehab. He got involved with Alcoholics Anonymous. He got into a sober living facility.

But he didn’t reconnect with his parents. And two years passed. That’s when, early this year, one of Corey’s old workmates posted on “Missing & Homeless.” And someone Corey lives with recognized him. And told Corey. And Corey called home.

"I don’t even remember the drive down here. You know, we sat down, and he talked about why — some of the things that made him leave. And him realizing that the DUI, everybody gets one and it’s nothing to run from, but this is something he’s been thinking about, and it’s something he needed to finish. And it’s like, he’s part of our family, and as I told him, he’s going to be my son forever, no matter what. I still love him," Robert said.

These days, Robert and Cathy come down from Willits periodically to visit Corey in San Francisco.

Corey doesn’t have a strong answer as to why he didn’t call his parents before a prompt from the acquaintance who spotted him on "Missing & Homeless.” What Corey can say is that he was ready when he got the nudge.

The Kind of Story Robin Burton Lives For

"A lot of homeless are afraid to contact their family because they don't know if they're going to be turned away," Burton said. "Some, you know, it's just they've been gone for so long they don't even know what to say to families anymore. Those are our miracle stories. There was a reason he was supposed to be found, and there was closure."

The search for Cloudia morphed into something else for Burton. She’s found a mission, a purpose in life, as a guide for others in need. The story about Burton's search for her mom has become an invitation for people to trust her. "The same people have probably heard it a thousand times. Well, now they’re coming to me for help and we’re finding their families."

That’s not to say there haven’t been personal wins for Burton, too. She never knew who her father was. But this summer, she found him. She was told as a kid that her mom got pregnant at 17, and had her at 18. But her grandparents didn’t know who her father was.

Recently, Burton took a DNA test and it led to Kansas and her 71- year-old dad. He doesn’t profess to remember Cloudia, but has met with Burton once already — and she’s going to Kansas soon to spend some vacation time with him.

Burton’s got a new lead for Cloudia, by the way, from someone in San Francisco who thought they saw her back in June. She would be 66 years old now. White woman, round face that’s probably slouched somewhat with age, presumed shoulder-length gray hair. Might still answer to the name of Cloudia. Or Leslie. Or Diane. Or some other name we don’t know about. Yet.

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