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Facebook group helps rural Alaska families track down homeless relatives

Samuel Johns was stopped at the Holiday convenience store in Midtown Anchorage a few weeks back when a young woman who seemed to be homeless asked him for money.

Johns, a 29-year-old Athabascan rapper and motivational speaker from Copper Center, said he had no cash. He offered to buy her some food instead.

When he returned with a bag of snacks from the convenience store, the two talked.

"I noticed she was Native," he said. "I asked where she was from and she said Angoon."

Johns asked if she wanted to go home.

Yes, she said. She wanted to go home.

Later, Johns couldn't shake the encounter from his mind. Were there people in Angoon worrying about her? Missing her?

"It was weighing down on me," he said.

So Johns turned to the Internet, and its ability to connect -- and reconnect -- people. He started a Facebook group he decided to call "Forget Me Not," after the Alaska state flower.

The idea was simple, he explained to followers: The group would be a virtual bulletin board for information about people living on the streets of Alaska's largest city who had slipped out of contact with loved ones.

He would go out and find some of them himself. Other people could post their encounters too.

"There's a lot of people in rural areas who have a loved one they wonder about," Johns said. "This gives them a platform to see them again."

The response was thundering and immediate: In just over a week, more than 4,500 people have followed the page.

Johns says he goes out every other day to talk to people on the street. He meets them in the Midtown Wal-Mart parking lot or at Bean's Cafe.

He approaches people with simple questions: Where are you from? And do you want to send a message to anyone back home?

Some say no. That's fine. "I'm not trying to sell them anything," he said.

Each photo posted is met with a string of dozens of responses. Robert from Nome; Cheryl from Kwethluk; Lillian from Buckland -- relatives of each appeared in the comments.

On the page, people post talk in the easy familiar way you might hear in a village store or post office:

"I miss my brother so much"

"Robert and his brother Danny built me a bike out of our great grandma and great grandpa's garage"

"yup my cousin Lillian. Thanks for sharing. Hope all is well cousin, take care & we love you."

Some have posted pictures and messages seeking their own lost relatives:

"If you see a girl named Amanda downtown tell her to call her sister."

"This is my uncle Paul...he usually calls home when he gets the chance....it's been a while since we heard from him."

When the group exploded with followers, Johns realized he had tapped into a previously unaddressed need. People disappear into the world of Anchorage street living, sometimes with no phone, no address and no reliable way to contact them. Their families are left to wonder.

"Literally every day we get calls," said Lisa Sauder, the executive director of Bean's Cafe, a client-run soup kitchen that serves meals to the homeless in the Ship Creek area. "We haven't heard from my brother, my dad, can you help us?"

People can have their mail sent to Bean's. A bulletin board inside includes written phone messages. For some families, Bean's is often the only place they know their hard-to-reach loved ones are visiting regularly.

But some people don't want to talk with their families.

"Not all of them are in a place where they want to be in touch right now," Sauder said. "I think this is a great option for clients who are open to that," she said of the Facebook page.

Johns says he started the group with a focus on rural Alaska, but it's not intended to be exclusive to Alaska Natives.

Researchers say that a significant number of Anchorage's homeless have roots in villages.

In the 2015 point-in-time survey of Anchorage's homeless population, 51 percent of all respondents said they were enrolled in a regional corporation, with the largest percentage in corporations that represent areas of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Bristol Bay.

Johns travels Alaska as a motivational speaker, promoting sobriety. For years, he was a binge drinker. He stopped drinking in 2007.

"That was a different life ago," he said.

He's been invited to speak and perform at conferences and schools, traveling to communities from Shaktoolik to Mentasta. He is busy with music -- he just released a new song -- and his family. He is the father of a 7-year-old daughter, with another baby on the way this summer.

Johns doesn't know what the site will become as time goes on.

"It's so new," he said. "I don't even know what it is. I'd like to see more families happier."

For it to be useful, other people need to get involved, he says.

Johns is clear about what he isn't doing. He doesn't have the resources to solve the core problems -- like addiction and mental illness -- that lead people to the streets to begin with.

"I'm not their counselor," Johns said. "I'm just someone trying to help them connect to their family through social media."

If the aim of his site is to reconnect people to their families, that at least seems to be happening.

On a hot recent afternoon, Johns and a friend went down to Bean's Cafe with some drums. Within a few minutes of their arrival, Teddy Segevan and his brother Wyman, originally from Wainwright, had joined the drumming.

Johns snapped a picture and posted it on Facebook. He posted the following words:

This is Teddy

He is from Wainwright

He is an Inupiaq

This is his message.

I'm still here. I'm alive.

I wish I can go home.

I miss all of you.

Please come down & show me more songs.

All of the songs I once knew is coming back to me.

An hour later, 27 people had commented. One was a niece of the Segevans.

"Brings me to tears," she wrote. "I'm so happy to know he's okay."

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