One Step Away: A worldwide search for family pays off

"Mr. Sam" with some of the staff at RHD Fernwood. From left are Joyce Harris, Gennefer Hall, Sam Foster, James Johnson, Eugene Green, and John Cain. The staff worked to help 82-year-old Mr. Sam achieve his goal of going home to his family. (Photo courtesy of One Step Away)

By Erik Swink

Mr. Sam is going home.

After 30 years estranged from his family, 82-year-old Sam Foster, known affectionately as “Mr. Sam,” is soon going to be reunited with them in England. His journey of homelessness and dedication to finding his family seemed stalled in a series of Philadelphia shelters and on the city streets, until Mr. Sam came to RHD Fernwood, where a dedicated staff found his long-lost relatives and worked to get him home.

“To look them in their faces and to see what kind of men they have become after these past 30 some years, then I can die a happy man,” Mr. Sam said.

Fernwood provides emergency housing for single men in Philadelphia referred by the Office of Supportive Housing. Many men who previously resided at the Ridge Center, Philadelphia’s largest men’s homeless shelter, moved to Fernwood after the city closed Ridge in 2012. Mr. Sam had been at Ridge for four years before transferring to Fernwood. There he met Sheena High, who became his case management supervisor and began to work on finding his family and getting him home.

“I am a believer that true family is key in support, whether it be the ones we are born with or the ones we create,” High said. “If we all have the opportunity to reconnect to it after whatever amount of time and after whatever reason that separated us we should all do it while we are alive.

“I always want to help those who are willing to help themselves first and he is that type of man, so it made it easy for me to be an advocate on his behalf at every level of this journey with him.”

Mr. Sam is originally from Jamaica. He moved to England at 22, and then immigrated to the U.S. in 1980 after a bitter divorce that left him almost broke. He used the rest of his money to fly to America and start a new life. Upon arrival, Mr. Sam started up a mechanic shop in New York and worked hard to maintain it. Mr. Sam eventually moved to Philadelphia with a friend and started another shop.

In 2007, he was injured while at work. He was taken to a Philadelphia hospital and then released to a nursing home and then to a rehab center. While Mr. Sam was hospitalized, his passport was stolen, leaving him without any identification. Mr. Sam then began the difficult struggle to re-obtain ID. He was unable to work after his accident and was forced to abandon his business.

Mr. Sam found out during this time that his family had moved, and he could not simply return home. He would have to find them first.

In 2008, the rehabilitation center released Mr. Sam to the Ridge Center, because he was broke and had no ID. From Ridge he was transferred to RHD Fernwood in 2012. There staff members Julius Jackson, Joyce Harris, Gennefer Hall, John Cain, and Stanley Burwell all worked to help him achieve his goal of going home to his family. High took over as Mr. Sam’s case manager.

High took special interest in his case. Last year she had the chance to go to Europe on vacation — and while on vacation, took the time to work at tracking down Mr. Sam’s family. She was able to get in touch with one of his sons, a man named Eyan Foster. Since then, Mr. Sam has been able to reestablish a connection with his family and RHD is currently working to send him home.

Sheena said she was moved to help him so much because he was a good self-advocate and clearly wanted assistance.

“Mr. Foster is a fighter – and on some days he says that I am his sparring partner,” High said. “Mr. Foster is persistent in his efforts when he has his mind set on something, and he will hold you accountable for your actions or the lack thereof. Mr. Foster is honest and blunt when needed, and that is what I like. He is clearly focused on his goals and lets nothing stop him from succeeding, even throughout the years of ups, downs, and some stagnation. No one can dampen his fire to achieve.

"He would not turn down a listening ear – and a lending hand, more importantly –  for support and action to move his case forward in returning him back to England.”

As Mr. Sam has aged, he’s had numerous health problems — which is why he feels the reconnection with his sons is so important. As the time approaches for Mr. Sam to go home, he is becoming more and more anxious to see his family.

“In the Philadelphia spirit and style of ‘Rocky,’ I can compare Mr. Foster to him — he always has another fight left in him to show people what he’s got and who you’re messing with,” High said. “Mr. Foster is a man’s man who likes working with his hands to get the job done, and believe me he is one about his daily business.

“Come rain, sleet, snow, storm, or shine, Mr. Foster will still leave out on time to handle and hand deliver any document or complete any task. Mr. Foster refuses to be complacent and lazy in his efforts. He knows if no one will fight for him, he will make everyone know he is fighting for himself and he will fight anyone who may stand in his way of success.

“Mr. Foster is my work motivation. If he is not quitting then I can’t quit either because the job is not done yet.”

Unfortunately, reconnecting homeless men with their families is not an easy task and has become a very common issue.

“Many of the homeless men have disconnected from their families,” said Jim Piasecki, RHD Corporate Assistant Director of Homelessness Programs. “Providers have to work to understand their specific issues with their families as well as trying to reconnect them. Sheena has always been very active working with the men at Fernwood. She’s very serious in her work. It can be a thankless job, but she’s done an extraordinary thing.”

“My main goal for all homeless men is to reconnect them to their families because they are so isolated even within the shelter system structure and have minimal supports in place,” High said. “They deserve to be included back into the family to be restored.”

Mr. Sam is very pleased to be returning home to his family soon, and his gratitude goes out to all those at RHD especially the staff at Fernwood.

“RHD has helped me to get home,” Mr. Sam said. “I am looking forward to that.”

Erik Swink is a student at Delaware Valley Friends School and a volunteer writer with One Step Away.