Missing persons

A woman’s desperate e-mail connects her to her son but may not heal their relationship

Photo By David Robert

Sometimes people fall through the cracks.

I think that’s the result of a society that cares more about the fruits of a person’s labor than the person who labors. Families are splintered. If the health-care system is diseased, then the mental-health system is psychotic.

Those with eyes to see are witness to the fact every day. Every day, we see the people pushing stolen shopping carts down the street. Every day, we see the sad-looking men with cardboard placards on freeway onramps: “Hungry homeless. Please help” or “Veteran. God bless you.” Every day, we see the women on Fourth Street with the too-short skirts, and we see the mothers, fathers and children near the river or the weekly hotels downtown or their overloaded cars. Every day, we wonder … or those with eyes to see wonder.

How did these people become so alone? Why doesn’t anyone help them? Can they be helped?

It’s not like many homeless have addresses, telephones, e-mail or jobs. Maybe they have military records, police records or voting records, but the networks—the social interconnections—are broken.

Surely, someone must care about these people. Some family member. Some pastor. Somebody must give a damn. But if somebody wanted to find their loved one who’d fallen through the cracks, how would they go about it? Perhaps they could call an uncertain homeless agency that keeps a database of the destitute. They could call the police. If they are in the region, maybe they could even check old jobs, old friends, old residences.

Unfortunately, there is no such database. Unless there is the appearance of foul play, police won’t help. And most of the time, it’s hard to know what region to look in because the disconnected travel with the weather, jobs or hope.

That helplessness will force some family members to act with desperation to ask anyone—anyone—for help. Generally, random pleas for aid have all the effectiveness of a message in a bottle thrown into an ocean.

This mug shot, taken in December 2006, was slightly misleading in that Perkins later cut his hair.

Message in a bottle
Hi my name is Barbara Mahanna, I live in the Midwest as of June 05, I lived in Southern Nevada for 27 years then moved briefly to Reno from 2003-2005. My older son came down from Oregon to stay with us & when we left Reno he was trying to get his life back & head back up to Oregon. The last time I had contact with him was July 2005, since then I’ve heard nothing no one here will help me put out a missing & endangered person report because he has never lived here. I’ve sent flyers to the Reno Police Dept & I was contacted by a Detective Depoali who is the only person trying to help do what he can. He was arrested in Reno December 2006, I believe he doesn’t want to call because I’ve had a bout with colon cancer in 1998, I know he worries I will get sick again. I’ve called Sparks Police Dept. & all they say is if he wants to contact you he will, that’s easy to say but they don’t know what a great heart he has. I’m just a Mother trying to find her son, the homeless population grows everyday in this country, & everyone has their own story of how they got there, but the streets are dangerous for anyone living in them. Is there any source of media that will help me? My son is a person. His name is James George Perkins. He’s 35 years old. Please help in any way you can.

Thank You Barbara Mahanna

That message was sent to the Sacramento offices of the News & Review, which, seeing the Reno connection, forwarded it on to me. I don’t really know what it was about the message that caught my attention—I have a soft spot for desperate acts. It did hit me at a moment when I was worrying about losing a family connection myself. I replied to the message, asking if Barbara could give me any more information: birthdate, whatever.

My last known anything was he was living with a friend Kim Pon. She was a manager at See’s Candy Store in the Mall in Reno. … She told us James was working at a 7-Eleven on Pyramid Way but that was in the summer of 2005. … I thought I could get some information from the last time he was arrested in Reno, but when I called records, they wouldn’t give me any information.

My son’s birthdate 10-24-71.

Making connections
The next day, as I drove my 9-year-old son, Hunter, to school, I handed him the e-mails in the order in which I received them. I’d decided this was a way to talk to him about some important topics: the importance of family, homelessness, drugs, society. He read them, and I asked him what he thought. Being an imaginative boy, he immediately assumed that James had been kidnapped. We talked a little about how much this mother must miss her son. I told him he should look at the problem like he was playing a computer game.

“You know how in Myst, you’ve got to solve one problem to get to the next part? Who in this e-mail might know something? Who could I talk to? Who might have a paper record of seeing him?” With leading questions, we eventually arrived at the solution: the Reno Police Department. At least, that was the most concrete bit of information: December 2006.

I contacted RPD that afternoon. James George Perkins had been arrested on Dec. 30, 2006, for trespassing and failure to appear on the earlier Sparks charge (possession of drug paraphernalia). I asked for the booking sheet and the mug shot, which was e-mailed to me. I had to drive to 911 Parr Blvd., to pick up the booking sheet. It showed 525 W. Second St. as his home address and the Dollar Tree as his employer. A quick Internet search showed his home to be one of those motels that pepper the downtown area: the Castaway Inn. There is only one Dollar Tree in the area.

St. Vincent’s Dining Hall manager Ray Trevino, second from right, can tell many stories of homeless people reunited with concerned family members.

Photo By David Robert

The mug shot, which was waiting for me at work, revealed a young-looking 35-year-old, with watery hazel eyes and a wild shock of brown hair. At 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds, he was rail thin and one look told me that Hunter’s participation in this investigation would be from afar. Lots of cranksters on the streets. Turns out, that wasn’t Perkins’ problem.

That night, over dinner, Hunter was excited to see what the trip to the police department had yielded. I was, too. We talked about the charges and what “paraphernalia” was. We made a plan for me to call the Castaway and check out his job at the dollar store.

“Can I speak to James Perkins,” I asked the woman who answered the phone. She’d never heard of him. “Room 25? I think 25 is still tore up.”

She wouldn’t give me any details as to why the room was torn up. The Dollar Tree was more help. The woman who was managing at the time took me into the office, where she went through personnel records looking for signs of Perkins. She didn’t recognize his face from the mug shot, but she remembered his name from some paperwork. She found an incorrectly placed file with a handwritten explanation of why Perkins had missed work at some point in his career at the store. Their record showed he’d left the Dollar Tree before his arrest, which told me he did not have a job when he was arrested. Add that to the fact that he had left the Castaway, and it appeared that his options for living in Reno had diminished.

The next morning, as I drove Hunter to school, I explained that our search had taken a turn for the worse. Given Perkins’ circumstances, the fact that his last known sighting was in the middle of winter in Reno, and he had friends in Oregon—it seemed likely he’d left town.

That night over dinner, we discussed our options. We talked about where homeless people might stay, where they might eat, where they might get clothes. His mom and I explained about the homeless shelter, where Perkins might sleep, and St. Vincent’s Dining Room, where he might get lunch—the “homeless restaurant,” as Hunter called it.

I’d visited these places that afternoon, so I was able to pass on some information. First, I discovered that Perkins had stayed at the shelter on Dec. 30, but he wouldn’t be able to go back because, now, he had a warrant for his arrest. If he showed up, the administration would have to call the police. Presumably, with more pressing matters than paying more than $1,132 in fines—for example, food and shelter in winter—he’d failed to appear in court.

I’d taken the mug shot over to St. Vincent’s. Ray Trevino, manager of the dining hall, took me in the back and vetted me, all the while telling inspirational stories of destitute people who’d been reunited with their loved ones through the persistence of a family member. Later, he took me to the serving line, where three of five volunteers said they recognized the man in the photo and he’d been in on Wednesday—two days earlier.

Trevino suggested I make a flier with Perkins’ photo, a short message—"your mom is looking for you"—and my contact information. He also suggested I include the words, “Police are not involved.”

Ruby, James Perkins’ pit bull, will have puppies in less than a month. Where she will whelp them and how Perkins will work while she suckles them is uncertain.

Photo By David Robert

I made the poster, but could not return to St. Vincent’s until the following Wednesday. Apparently, Trevino called back the next day, but the News & Review phone system was down, and although he’d left a message, the voicemail light on my telephone didn’t begin blinking until Friday afternoon.

“You came by with a flier looking for James Perkins. We have located him,” began the message. It turned out that Richard Mundy, a volunteer in the dining room, had recognized the man in the photo as someone he frequently worked with at Labor Ready, a casual labor outfit over at East Sixth and Sutro streets. “He’s there every day from 5 in the morning until 6 and then 1 in the afternoon until 3. You’ll find him there.”

He wasn’t there.

I left a message with the desk and, after returning to the office, called back and left my personal cell number.

Family ties
“Hello, Brian? This is James … Perkins.”

I admit, after all the time we’d spent thinking about him—where he might be, what he might be up to—I didn’t recognize his name for a long heartbeat. We made hurried plans to meet at his favorite casino, one that allows dogs in the bar area. Turns out in Perkins’ world, Ruby the pit bull is a big reason he became homeless—his mom wouldn’t let the dog stay inside. Ruby is also one reason it’s difficult to work. Who would watch the dog?

Perkins is wearing a red, white and blue Boy Scout beanie. He’d cut that wild mop of hair off short. He has Ruby, the very obviously pregnant pit bull, on a leash nearby. I buy us a set of double cheeseburgers with fries. We settle down near a hidden bar to talk. He takes me back to those first homeless days when he was working at FedEx Ground—24 hours a week, not enough to support an apartment. He was living at his mom’s house in Sparks. Just one problem—she had sold the house and was moving. He was going to go back to Oregon, but his friend’s wife was having a baby.

“We [he and Ruby] found the marina, walked around there. That was a great place to be. Stayed down by the railroad tracks by that Denny’s down there. Then we ran into some tramps, and they showed me how to fly a sign. ‘Need help, traveling.’ You get money all day: change, dollars, fives. You can come up with 20 bucks in 15 minutes. I’d make five or 10 bucks, get some dog food, food for me, a beer, tobacco. Just hang out. And I really like to smoke weed.”

Perkins says the people in Northern Nevada are generous, helpful. No problem surviving here. He said he hadn’t so much fallen through the cracks as jumped through. It just kind of worked out that way. And then it was just easier to be alone with his dog.

On May 4, James Perkins spoke by telephone with his mother, the first time they’ve talked in almost two years.

Photo By David Robert

“I thought my mom just dropped me. She had a new husband, new kids to raise. I don’t know why she’s trying to search for me. I didn’t bounce on her. She bounced on me.”

Perkins says he would love to have a regular job—one that pays well enough to get an apartment—a car, all the things that regular people have. He thought he had a brother and a sister in Reno, but they’re both gone. The sister’s in Yerington. His brother’s doing his medical residency in Texas. What he doesn’t have, he doesn’t seem to miss.

“If I fell through society’s cracks, that’s good, I’m happy. I think society is ruined. Society made me the way I am, and I’m pretty happy about it because I don’t want to be the way society is.”

I lend him my cell phone to call his mom. That’s the point of this whole exercise, right? The whole Oprah, happy-ending thing. He makes a 22-minute-18-second call to Iowa. I’m privy to half the conversation.

He tells his mom he works at Labor Ready. She invites him to Iowa.

“What am I going to do there? … Of course I still have my dog. … They were just having a baby.” Sighs. Sighs again. “That’s ridiculous. What do you want me to call and say? Of course, I’m alive, how am I going to die? Iowa, what am I going to do in Iowa? Can I hear a freeway there? I can’t sleep if I can’t hear a freeway. You get used to it. People help me somehow. I can get a job. I got a job three days after I got here, but you said I had to leave. Next Sunday? All right. All right. I love you, too.”

Looks at me. “That was pretty interesting,” he says with his sardonic grin.

I buy him another beer and go home to my family. I tell Hunter about my conversation with Perkins. He’s lost interest. To him, the search was the exciting part. My honey, Kathleen, Hunter and I go to Spider-Man 3. The renewal of Perkins’ real family connection is unimportant to Hunter in comparison to the movie’s fictional ones.

The next week, I call Barbara Mahanna, the person who began this story with her desperate e-mail. Perhaps I’m looking for a sort of emotional closure as much as I’m seeking a way to end the story. We talked for more than an hour—three times the time her long-lost son spent on the phone with her.

It sounds like there were many missed opportunities to maintain the family ties. But then the other children had their own problems, and Barbara was a single mother, just trying to keep a roof over her family’s head—but not every family headed by a single mother ends up with a homeless child. There are no answers, and there is no closure.

“I’m trying to save my son,” says Barbara. “I think Jimmy’s lost. I hate that he’s my son and he’s lost. I hate the fact that he’s lost. You know what I’m saying? He needs emotional help right now. I feel like it’s my fault sometimes. I do. I really do. I am just one parent trying to help my son off the street, and it’s really hard. I don’t want my son to die on the streets. I don’t want my son to live on the streets.”