Robin Burton thinks of her mother every time she hands out supplies to the homeless or visits a tent city.
“Not everyone who is homeless is on drugs or alcohol,” said Burton, 44, of State Park in Collinsville, who leads a non-profit organization called Missing & Homeless 618. “There are people who have lost their jobs. There are people who are mentally ill. There are runaways who were kicked out of the house. Everybody has a story. It’s not our place to judge.”
Burton’s mother, Cloudia “Leslie” Wells, disappeared from Maryville 21 years ago. She is believed to be schizophrenic.
Burton has followed leads in multiple states, trying to find Wells, who would be 62 if alive. Burton recently found evidence that she may be in Southern California.
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“I know that’s my mom,” Burton said, pointing to a photo of a bundled-up homeless woman. “I don’t care who she says she is. She’s used aliases throughout her life.”
A Los Angeles Times photographer took the photo in 2013, the same year someone used Wells’ Social Security number at a Santa Monica homeless shelter. But the woman gave the photographer a different name.
Burton has worked at Ardie and Tiny’s in Collinsville off and on for 15 years and now serves as bar manager. Many customers and employees know of her plight.
“I’m really proud of her,” said bar owner Ardie Foster, 75, of Collinsville. “Her mom went homeless, and she’s been looking for her. Maybe someday we’ll find her.”
62 Age Cloudia “Leslie” Wells would be today
23 Families that have been reunited through Missing & Homeless
People in the surrounding community have joined the Missing & Homeless cause by donating non-perishable food, toiletries, clothing and other supplies for distribution to local homeless people.
“It may have started with her mother,” said Jeanne Belman, 69, an Ardie and Tiny’s customer from Fairmont City. “It may have started with hardship, but it’s blossomed into a blessing.”
Burton formed Missing & Homeless last April. She and other board members from around the country, including a private investigator, work to raise awareness and help people find loved ones.
“Facebook is a great social media tool,” said Burton, noting the organization has helped reunite more than 20 families.
The volunteer work also opened Burton’s eyes about homelessness in St. Louis and the metro-east. She and her friends started collecting donated supplies and distributing them in parks and tent cities.
Today, about 10 members of the Missing & Homeless 618 Squad venture out on Saturday mornings, wearing blue hoodies with an image of a homeless person’s feet wrapped in rags.
“Robin inspired me so much, I drive here from Anna,” said volunteer Kathleen Bailey, 47, a convenience store manager on medical leave. Bailey showed up last Saturday with a vanload of Vienna sausages, chips, granola bars, bottled water, pudding and Pop-Tarts.
The 618 Squad went to a park at 14th and Olive in St. Louis and set up folding tables with donations. They work alongside Feed My Peeps and Moms on a Mission.
It’s actually fairly decent today. Sometimes it’s 5 and 10 degrees when we’re out here. We know we’re cold, so we can only imagine how cold (the homeless) are.
Janet Soldman on Saturday morning distributions
“It’s actually fairly decent today,” said 618 volunteer Janet Soldman, 40, a construction worker who lives in Collinsville. “Sometimes it’s 5 and 10 degrees when we’re out here. We know we’re cold, so we can only imagine how cold they are.”
Volunteers joined hands for prayer at 8 a.m. sharp. In the next hour, an estimated 200 homeless people visited their tables. Many wore several layers of clothing. Some carried blankets and trash bags full of belongings.
“It really makes you look at your life and think, ‘My problems are minute,’ and you realize how blessed you are,” Soldman said. “You’ve got a home. You’ve got a job. You’ve got food.”
Working in the trenches
One of the most well-known faces at the park is Joe Loane, 47, a former security guard with a bushy beard. He has been homeless about five months, living in an abandoned building.
“I’m fighting for my disability,” said Loane, a father of 10. “I’ve got macular degeneration in both eyes, so I’m going blind. Back in August, my (estranged wife) put me out on the streets.”
Loane has a cellphone, so he finds out what his homeless friends need — heaters, stoves, backpacks or batteries — and posts it on the Missing & Homeless Facebook page.
“If it wasn’t for these groups helping us, I don’t know how we would make it,” he said. “They gave me this jacket. It was like brand new.”
About that time, 618 volunteer Krista Ernst, 23, of Collinsville, walked by and handed Joe a sausage-and-egg biscuit from McDonald’s.
“On Christmas morning, we brought a whole bunch of presents out,” said Ernst, who also works at Ardie and Tiny’s. “We had about 300 stockings filled with candy. We even had Santa here. Tony (Hilker) dressed up as Santa Claus. I know that they had a good Christmas. Every person walked away with a big old trash bag full of stuff. It warmed my heart.”
The 618 Squad stayed at the park about an hour. Then they loaded up their van and headed to an Illinois tent city, where a handful of homeless people live.
They delivered candles, cold medicine and gasoline to Jeff Vargas, who uses a generator to power his radio and cellphone.
“A lot of people are grateful to them,” said Vargas, 44, whose tent area is decorated with an American flag and silk flowers. “Nobody has to come out here and do this. I know they’re doing it out of love.”
Vargas occasionally works roofing jobs or helps a friend with a food truck to earn money. A local pastor picks him up for church.
“I can’t complain,” Vargas said, noting he spent time in prison as a young man for stealing a car. “I can’t say anyone else was at fault. I was caught up in my little world.”
Looking for Mom
Burton was reared in Collinsville by her grandparents, the late Edgar and Gwyndlon Wells. She didn’t know her father.
“My mom was in and out of my life all my life,” Burton said. “She’d come home for two months, and then she’d be gone for two years. No one ever questioned it.”
Burton was grown by the time she learned Wells had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent shock treatments as a young woman.
“Back then, mental illness was pushed under the carpet,” Burton said, noting she had resented Wells all those years and thought she was living it up without her.
Burton last saw her mother on Christmas Day of 1994. Wells was living in a Maryville apartment, caring for Burton’s grandmother, who had broken her hip.
She told my grandmother that she was going to the post office to pick up the mail, and she never came back. But she was always doing that, so we didn’t even fill out a missing-person report.
Robin Burton on her mother’s disappearance
“She left in January of ’95,” Burton said. “She told my grandmother that she was going to the post office to pick up the mail, and she never came back. But she was always doing that, so we didn’t even fill out a missing-person report.”
Wells’ longest time away from home had been five years, so after 10 years, Burton decided to contact police. She also began doing Internet research. Burton verified through electric bills that her mother had lived briefly in Columbia, Mo. Burton also obtained a photo taken in 1998 at a homeless shelter in San Diego, Calif.
“I knew it was my mom,” Burton said. “My whole family knew it was my mom. That was taken three years after she left.”
At one point, Burton went on the road with a truck-driving friend and posted missing fliers all over the country. She also traveled to California three times and appeared on TV news, appealing for help with her search.
“I knew about homelessness, but I really didn’t know about homelessness until I went to skid row in Los Angeles,” Burton said. “That changed my life forever.”
Burton was particularly struck by the way missing and homeless people become “invisible.” She knows Wells could have taken a bus anywhere, but she isn’t giving up.
“I believe I will find my mom,” Burton said. “I believe I’ve been put on this path to understand her. I have to find her to tell her I love her.”
How to help
- Missing & Homeless welcomes donations of non-perishable, packaged food, toiletries, blankets and clothing, as well as cash to buy supplies.
- For more information, call 618-550-1005, visit https://www.facebook.com/MissingHomelessOrg/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.