For nearly a month, she scoured Los Angeles, but her mother wasn’t anywhere, and she ultimately drove home, furious. “I was very angry at God,” she said. “I couldn’t find her, and it’s been that way for 20 years.”

When she got home to St. Louis, she thought there had to be a better way to search for the missing. She’d learned there’s a significant overlap between homelessness and mental illness and that many of the homeless are missing and have relatives searching for them. She started Missing & Homeless, featuring that Los Angeles Times photo of her mother, as a new way for people to search for their loved ones. Within a month, someone had been found. And soon after that, three more were found in a single week.

“It just gets shared and shared and shared until someone says, ‘I know this person,’ or ‘I’ve seen that person,’ ” Burton said.

That was how Don Papageorgas, 22, speaking on the condition that only his middle and last name be used, found his homeless father, who died days after their meeting. “I went to see him [again] and realized he had died the day before,” he said. “That was when it was the most emotional.”

And that, too, was how C.L. Hayes was found. “I was heavy on drugs,” said Hayes, who had been missing and homeless for 25 years. “And I’m with my family now. . . . And it feels good, man, it feels real good.” 

Burton wishes she could feel like that. But no matter how many posts she’s published about the homeless and missing, her mother has never resurfaced. It’s only been the loved ones of others. People like Chris Moreland. People who may not know that they’re lost.


Matthieu told her to meet at the Flying J in Kingman. That was where she’d find her son. And now Cash was pulling up, scared. She felt determined to bring him home, but what if he was still psychotic? Matthieu came up to her car and for a moment watched Cash shaking in her seat. “I’ll go in with you,” Matthieu said, and the two women, who until that moment had never met but now felt bonded, held on to each other as they walked into the truck stop.

Cash’s eyes scanned the room, settling on a man in the back. He had the right build: broad shoulders, tall, full frame. But as she got closer, she felt her chest tighten. That wasn’t her son. It couldn’t be. His skin was leathered and cracked. His stubble had gray in it. They’re wrong, she thought. It’s not him. Then she got even closer to him and looked into his eyes, still tan, still gentle, and “I knew it was my boy.”

“Chris, have you been doing some traveling?” she remembers softly saying to her son, now 40. “It’s your mom.”

He looked at her, but there was no flash of recognition.

“You’re not my mom,” he said.

Cash could see the effect of living for years on the street on Moreland immediately. (Elise Cash)

“Are you ready to come home?” she asked, reaching out to touch him.

“Back away,” Matthieu recalls him saying, showing a personality she hadn’t seen before. “If you touch me again, I will call the police.”

By now, Cash had lost her composure and was begging him, asking him to come home, but all he did was look accusingly at Matthieu and her husband — as if they had betrayed him — and walk out of the truck stop, where he hid behind a shed.

Cash didn’t know what to do. She felt powerless. She couldn’t help him. She had found him, finally, but nothing more. Not knowing what else to do, and thinking her presence had done nothing except make everything worse, she eventually got back into her car and drove the four hours home.

She and Matthieu kept in close contact, and soon, through her, Cash was sending her son clothing and food and books about airplanes, because he’d always loved them. This went on for months, and Matthieu helped him find some work, sending pictures and frequent progress updates to Cash. Every now and then, Matthieu and her husband would tell him about his mother. That really was her, they’d tell him, then show him the pictures of himself online that said he was missing. But it never seemed to sink in.

Then one day, he was gone again. He’d hopped on a truck heading for Tempe, Ariz., where he was arrested on a 2011 felony charge of marijuana possession. In May, Maricopa County Superior Court held him for a psychological evaluation, which he is still undergoing.

When Cash found out, she felt only relief. For the first time in a long time, she knew where he was.

And she also thought about how close Tempe was to her house. Only a 30-minute drive away. Was he finally coming back to her, when he was arrested? She didn’t know. But she wanted to hope.

This story has been updated.