KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Each night more than 400 people experiencing homelessness sleep at Knoxville Area Rescue Ministries. Behind each of those people are family or friends who may or may not be wondering where they are, and if they're still alive.
That is the case every day for Burt and Carolyn Rosen. They constantly wonder about their son, Matthew. He disappeared 22 years ago. When Burt first started his role as CEO of KARM, he found it particularly difficult to look visitors in the face. They reminded him too much of his son.
One of the last times Burt and Carolyn saw their son, he was living on the streets of New York City. Matthew returned home once after that. Then, they never saw him again.
"When we were first beginning to navigate through all that we were in a lot of pain had never experienced before," Burt said.
Matthew graduated high school in Fairfax County, Virginia. He attended the University of Miami. Then, he transferred to Virginia Tech. The Rosens said he dropped out of school and returned home a different person.
"The son who came home wasn't the son who went away, and ultimately seeking counsel, we made a very painful decision to ask him to leave because he refused to get help," Burt said.
Matthew was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, according to the Rosens. Although they no longer wanted him in the home, they still wanted him to be safe and successful. Now, they still have no idea where he is.
"You're always wondering, and you're always searching," Burt said.
After taking the job at KARM, Burt and Carolyn started to better understand just how common the situation was.
"We began looking at what Carolyn referred to as, 'the other side of homelessness.' So often, the focus is on those who are homeless or those who are missing," Burt said. "But at least in our particular situation on the homeless front, there's a lot of parents out there who just want to know if their son or daughter is still alive."
One day, Burt received an email in his KARM inbox. It was from a family looking for their son.
"This family said that their 38-year-old son had stayed at KARM in 2019, and wanted to know if perhaps he had come back," Burt said. "All we could do is go back to them and say, 'He hasn't been here. But if you're wondering if he has, that means you don't know where he is, my wife and I know a little something about that.'"
That conversation sparked a cross-country friendship and the start of the idea for Hold on to Hope.
Burt and Carolyn have exhausted their energy by searching, wondering, and praying all these years. Carolyn described the grieving process as "mourning the living."
No counselor, preacher, best friend, or pamphlet was able to deliver them through the pain. But, something else has given them hope -- a passage in the Bible.
"What he said was, 'I know my God is able to deliver me.' But it's what he said right after that keeps us going. 'But even if he doesn't, I will praise him.' And so for us, if Matthew is alive, do we believe that he can show back up healthy and whole? Absolutely. But even if he doesn't, we have to continue living our lives," Burt said.
They want to help other families find peace in the mystery, calm in the storm, and go on living their lives.
Hold on to Hope just officially started about three months ago. The couple is looking for more people with missing loved ones, across the county to offer support to one another.
The hope is to have a group of supportive individuals who can motivate and mentor each other through the unknown. And, eventually, they even want to operate a hotline.
"We'll hold their hands, we'll walk with them, we'll pray with them. We'll encourage them, and help them hold on to hope," Burt said.
If you want to get in contact with Burt and Carolyn Rosen to learn more about Hold on to Hope, how you can help, or how they can help you, email them.
You can reach them at Burt@HopeHoldsOn.org and Carolyn@HopeHoldsOn.org.
If you are missing a loved one, don't go through this walk alone.