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Mike DeBernardo, Deseret News
Utah Highway Patrol trooper Bonnie Kunz talks with homeless people in the Rio Grande neighborhood on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. Kunz is one of five homeless outreach troopers working in the neighborhood trying to build relationships with the homeless.

SALT LAKE CITY — A new Utah Highway Patrol unit is trying to build relationships with the homeless in the Rio Grande neighborhood, but its attention to detail also recently helped reunite a man with the family who had been searching for him for the past two years.

Bonnie Kunz, one of five "homeless outreach" troopers now working the area, learned in February of a Minnesota family’s struggle to find Mark Waters, a loved one who had been completely off the grid for two years and absent for much of the past 45.

“They needed to speak with him to break him the news of his father passing away,” Kunz said.

Kunz said troopers had a picture to reference, but she initially believed the odds of finding Waters were “slim to none, a needle in a haystack” due to the lack of recent contact and the fact that the homeless often migrate to other states.

However, troopers — who had been policing the area closely under the ongoing Operation Rio Grande — managed to spot Waters the day after agreeing to help the family.

“My lieutenant happened to see him on the sidewalk that morning, called me out there,” Kunz recalled. “He wouldn’t really stay with us until I was able to tell him ‘Hey, I talked to your brother.’”

Kunz said Waters’ demeanor instantly changed.

“I was very genuine with him in telling him, ‘Your brother is coming out here on Friday of this week and he needs to speak with you, can you please call him?’” Kunz said. “He was very shocked, very taken back, where to he had to sit down because he had a hard time composing himself.”

Nearly four weeks later, a thank you letter came in the mail from Waters’ brother, Martin Waters, along with a photo from the reunion.

“At the end of your day when you go home, you may think that it’s the end of a good day, but that you just did your job and thankfully made it home alive and well,” the letter read. “Our reunion with all the caring and collaborative people working together and going above and beyond was nothing short of miraculous — a real-life, made-for-TV movie. Thank you for your efforts!”

On Tuesday, Martin Waters thanked Kunz for the first time face-to-face through a Skype call.

“You’re fantastic!” Waters exclaimed. “We love you!”

“Love you guys, too,” replied Kunz, holding back a tear. “I really do think everything happens for a reason! Glad we met!”

Kunz said she believed her unit’s outreach efforts in the Rio Grande neighborhood are directly tied to troopers finding Waters.

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“If we weren’t down here on foot, doing what we do down here at Rio Grande, we wouldn’t have found him,” Kunz said. “It’s pretty cool!”

The outreach troopers have been working since January to build connections with the homeless to help them in their circumstances while making the neighborhood safer — efforts that continue.

“Some are easier to help than others, but for the most part, we get them wherever they need to be,” Kunz said. “We want the patrons around to know that it’s OK to have us officers around the area — we’re here to help.”