LOS ANGELES — Ellen Van Der Bosch knows all too well the pain of having a child go missing. For the last 13 years, her son and only child, Max, has lived with substance abuse and mental illness. He frequently goes missing on the streets, and she loses contact with him for months on end, wondering and worrying about his health and safety.
He's currently missing. Van Der Bosch thinks somewhere on the streets of Santa Ana, his last sighting.
"He's more addicted to fentanyl right now. It used to be heroin," she said.
Van Der Bosch knows she's not alone. As the homelessness crisis reaches new heights in Los Angeles, more desperate parents and families are left with few options to find their loved ones that go missing on the streets. So she decided that, even if she can't find her child, maybe she can help other parents find theirs.
"My son went missing, and someone found him, and I told her I would pay it forward," Van Der Bosch said, referencing a time several years ago when her son was found safely, only for him to go missing again not long after.
"It's a rush when you find somebody that's missing, and then when they pick up the phone and go 'Hi, mom.' Because I know how that feels, I know the heartache," she said.
In response, Van Der Bosch started a nonprofit called Textwich. It relies on putting messages on sandwiches and helps families locate missing people by feeding the homeless. She exchanges a sandwich for a tip or a possible sighting. It's a simple concept that plays on the adage that the way to someone's heart is through their stomach.
Every weekend, Van Der Bosch stocks up on sandwiches and food that are either donated or purchased with her own money. She drives into homeless encampments all around the city and sets up giveaway tables piled high with food.
Van Der Bosch's voice pierces the stillness on the street as she calls out, "Free food!" and people start coming out of their tents. But her trick is a poster wall set up right next to the food, featuring pictures and descriptions of all the missing people she's searching for.
As they reach for a sandwich, she uses the moment to pitch her purpose.
"You can have as much as you want," Van Der Bosch tells them. "All I ask is that you look at these people. If anyone looks familiar, these guys should be in this area."
This food exchange for information has been so successful that Textwich has expanded into other cities and created a network of mothers who deploy where Van Der Bosch can't personally be. So far, Van Der Bosch has counted 70 people found through the network, but not everyone wants to return home. Some people choose to remain on the street, and in those cases, Van Der Bosch does weekly checks with them and gives their parents and families updates.
One great success story is that of Elizabeth Ross, who found her daughter through Textwich about two years ago. She lived on Skid Row and chose to remain there until 10 months ago when a man nearly beat her to death. Ross got her daughter into rehab.
"And she is now 10 months sober, working and building her relationship with her two kids," Ross said.
Both mom and daughter are Textwich volunteers, hoping to pay it forward for another family. It's the organization's ethos — that even if you can't find your missing person, you join the network and help find others.
Van Der Bosch continues this work with the utmost dedication, all the while hoping to one day soon reunite with her son.
If you need the services of Textwich, or want to donate to the organization, find out more at Textwich.org.