For decades, Hattiemae Bryan looked at the photograph on her bedroom dresser, and she cried.

It showed her son in a wicker chair. He was a young man then, the way Bryan remembers him when he last left Charleston in 1982.

He built a new life in Louisiana and phoned home occasionally. He mailed a Mother’s Day card in 1994.

But for nearly 20 years now, his loved ones in the Lowcountry have heard nothing from him.

They know he fell on hard times and homelessness. But they know he’s still alive.

His two sisters became sleuths. They learned that he left Louisiana and skipped out on a rental bill in Arizona.

He got arrested repeatedly in Jacksonville, Fla., where homeless people knew him as “New Orleans.”

But the sisters’ detective work was always just a step behind him.

They called a hotel the morning after he checked out. They showed up at a McDonald’s the day after he was there.

His mother, now 80, hasn’t lost hope that she will see him again. But she couldn’t keep glancing at the photo that has cracked and yellowed with old age.

“Come home to mama,” Bryan said. “That’s all I could think when I looked at it. I had to take it down.”

The tale of 56-year-old Floyd Hezekiah Dwight is one that’s not unheard of among the American homeless population. But it’s not common for someone to stay in the shadows for so long.

People who live on the streets can be difficult to find. When they have contact with the government or the police, they sometimes give the address of a local shelter or someone else’s house. But shelters also guard their confidentiality — a frustration that Dwight’s family has encountered.

“They’re moving from place to place,” said Amy Zeigler of Crisis Ministries in downtown Charleston. “But we don’t always know what kind of situation they’re trying to escape.”

Leaving home

Why Dwight has avoided the call of home is something his family can’t figure out. He might abuse drugs. He might be ashamed that he’s homeless. He might think he’s not loved.

But his family wants him back. He was the lone family member missing from his mother’s 80th birthday party. He wasn’t there when his nieces and nephews were born, or when his father died a decade ago.

Relatives recall only fond memories of someone who was slow to anger and proud of his independence.

To even his eldest sister, Virgie Bryant-Green, he was the family’s protector. Young men knew not to tease his sisters or to break their hearts.

He would buy a bowl of beef stew at The Patio, a former downtown restaurant — a ritual after cashing his paycheck. He let his youngest sister, Charlane Dwight, spend the change.

He was working as a mason when an accident threatened his livelihood. As he helped build a downtown museum, a wooden beam grazed his forehead and crushed his leg.

He had been hobbled for months when he resolved to start anew elsewhere. He moved to New Orleans for work.

The day in 1982 when he returned for a visit was a Thursday. His mother remembers that detail.

They grabbed lunch on King Street, then went home. He yelled to his mother upstairs that he was leaving, that he would be all right. He caught a taxi, then a bus, and he was gone.

Bryan didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. After a letter to her son went unanswered in 1994, Bryan went to the police and the FBI. But he was an adult capable of forging his own path, and they couldn’t help her. Private investigators couldn’t track him down.

The mission

Now, his sisters’ mission is to bring him home to the mother who cries when she sees a honey bun, one of his favorite treats.

They thought his recent arrests in Jacksonville made up their best bet for finding him. They drove there last week and didn’t tell their mother.

They picked up their brother’s booking photo at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. It shows Floyd Dwight with short, salt-and-pepper hair. He stares away from the camera.

They emblazoned the mug on a flier with a hotline number for people to phone them with tips. They handed the papers to the homeless, to police officers, to a television reporter. One lawman filmed the sisters talking about their plight and posted the video on YouTube.

They canvassed parks, shelters, stores and bus terminals.

They riffled through the reports detailing his run-ins with the authorities, then drove through Florida’s largest city.

They visited the park bench where he told a police officer who awoke him in 2007 that he had nowhere else to sleep. They went to a community where he was caught with crack cocaine and the vacant home where he was found with marijuana in 2010. They saw the building where he was arrested in 2011 for stealing scrap metal because he was desperate for cash.

In each case, he readily admitted his wrongdoings to the police.

“It hurts my heart to know that my brother is out there struggling,” Charlane Dwight, 42, said. “If he wants to be homeless, we want him to be homeless in Charleston, where he can get a meal from his mother.”

Back at her North Charleston home, Bryan learned of her daughters’ progress in Florida. As she waited for their return, she would peer through a window whenever she heard a car engine. She hoped that Dwight would come knocking.

He didn’t.

Now, she only dreams of replacing the faded photo of her son with the real thing.