WASHINGTON - Just after sunrise Christmas morning, the people searching for Robert Fox began to arrive at Franklin Square in downtown Washington. They had read a story in The Washington Post about his holiday wish - to spend Christmas with his daughter in Virginia - and they wanted to help him get there.
Fox, 70, had been homeless for nearly a year, but the man believed that his daughter, who, as far as he knew lived just outside Fredericksburg, Virginia, would take him in, feed him a good meal, give him a warm bed. But Fox was broke, having long since run out of the $531 he receives each month from Social Security. He had a cellphone but couldn't afford to pay for service and, with less than 48 hours left before Christmas, he'd spent his last 62 cents on a Newport cigarette. In his mind, though, all he needed was enough money to buy a $27 bus ticket south. The rest, he hoped, would work itself out.
At least 20 people came looking for him at the park, said Patrick Hill, who has lived on the streets of the nation's capital for years. He, too, had tried to help Fox in the preceding days, recommending places and people who could help him reunite with his daughter.
"He was sincere and genuine about what he wanted," Hill said. "He didn't ask me for nothing else. He didn't want a drink. He didn't want a smoke."
In a city with 6,500 homeless people, that sincerity also resonated with thousands of Post readers. But when the altruists couldn't find Fox, Hill said, they passed out money and gift cards to other homeless people who had packed into Franklin Square - an unofficial refuge for those with nowhere to go - on Christmas morning. One of them gave Hill a cellphone. Someone else handed him $50.
Scott Talan, an assistant professor at American University, was among more than 100 people from Indonesia to Hawaii who emailed a Post reporter, also offering to help Fox reach his daughter.
"This wasn't a plane to another state or out of the country," Talan said. "It was a bus trip to Virginia."
The apparent simplicity of Fox's need, Talan said, moved him to act, and he suspected the same notion prompted many others to do the same: "How can this be and how can I help?"
For Fox, though, it was never as simple as a bus ticket. He understood that his vision of the ideal Christmas was something of a fantasy. By his recollection, he hadn't spoken to his daughter in four years and hadn't seen her in five or six. He figured she'd be angry when she heard from him because they hadn't spoken in so long, but he also felt certain that she would forgive. Still, he didn't have her phone number or the number of a sister who he thought would have it. On Christmas Eve, he planned to go to the Union Station bus terminal where he would try to sell a new coat or a blanket or, if that failed, beg strangers for money. The idea unraveled when, by that night, he still hadn't reached his sister or daughter. Instead, he spent Christmas in Washington with one of his sons, who has a different mother from his daughter in Virginia.
The Post tried to contact his daughter but found no one in public records who went by her name. Fox suggested she might have taken her husband's last name, but he didn't know what it was. He couldn't recall her address, but, he thought, would recognize her house by sight. On Thursday, a Post reporter called and texted his sister and his son. Neither responded.
Earlier in the week, Fox was frank about his struggles with drug abuse and the law. He'd been arrested a number of times through the decades and, he said, once spent a year in prison on a cocaine conviction. He hadn't always been there for his five kids, but he said he loved them.
Since his teens, Fox said, he'd found a way to earn a living - in construction, painting, home repair - but an eviction about four years ago unmoored him. He bounced from one friend or family member's place to another, he said, but eventually no one could afford to let him stay long-term, leaving him homeless.
With Christmas approaching, Fox imagined that at his daughter's place he could start a new life. Her home wasn't far from where he grew up, he said. He had childhood friends down there, people he could lean on. Even at his age, he was strong enough to repair cars or renovate houses. He would find work, earn a living again.
The response from readers to his story was immediate and overwhelming. Many were angry that the Post reporter didn't buy Fox a bus ticket, an act that would have violated ethical rules that prohibit journalists from paying subjects or becoming participants in their own stories.
Many more readers, though, just wanted to help a man in need.
They provided their email addresses and phone numbers. They offered to send him money, to buy him new clothes, to drive him to Virginia.
"Did he make it to his daughter?" asked John Ferrell. "Where can I send a donation to cover his trip and a basic stipend?"
"How can we help him?" wrote Camilla Zieg, a 73-year-old widow from California. "Helping just one would be a gift to myself!"
"I am a Muslim woman who wants to help Mr. Fox be united with his daughter this season of blessings and great hope," wrote a reader from Indonesia, Maria Arquisola. "Please tell me how I can help him buy his $27 ticket."
"I spent 3 years homeless on the streets of Atlanta. Against the odds, I was able to recover and am once again stable," one man said. "I never forgot the cold nights and the longing for family, however. Since that time, I have tried to do what I can to help."
"I recently lost my only son who was in a similar predicament and it breaks my heart to see anyone suffer needlessly," wrote Denise Price of Ohio.
"I have been in his position and would love to help him as much as I can," another reader wrote. "When people see someone like him they automatically think to themselves that he must be a drug addict or he has brought this on himself. This may be true as it was in my case but that doesn't mean that they don't deserve sympathy or a second chance."
That's how Talan, who created a GoFundMe account on Fox's behalf, viewed it, too. To him, whether the money reunited Fox with his daughter or helped him in some other way didn't matter.
Maybe, if he couldn't make it to Virginia, the contributions would pay for new clothes or the service for his cellphone.
Maybe, he thought, the fund could even raise enough to get Fox off the streets and into a real home.
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The Washington Post's Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.
This article was written by John Woodrow Cox, a reporter for The Washington Post.