In 1995, Mark Horvath found himself homeless on Hollywood Boulevard. Now he's driving cross-country recording the stories of others like him.
In 1994, Mark Horvath was living in Los Angeles and had a successful career in the television industry. A year later, thanks to a cocktail of drugs, alcohol, and other bad decisions, he was homeless on Hollywood Boulevard. Little by little, he worked his way back up to making a six-figure salary as director of marketing for a megachurch. He was living in a three-bedroom house and driving a nice car. But then the recession hit. He was laid off, facing foreclosure, and again teetered on the edge of becoming homeless. After 19 months of looking for work, he had run out of money for rent. So as a way to flee his problems, he picked up a camera and hit the road in November 2008.
"I was just sitting on a couch in my apartment, and I thought up the idea to film homeless people partly because I had no idea what else to do," Horvath tells me. "I decided to go to Seattle to visit a tent city I had seen on Oprah. I had no idea if I was going to be able to have funds to come back."
Horvath began recording the stories of homeless people he met in Seattle and livetweeting their conversations. He posted all the videos on invisiblepeople.tv, a project he started with $45, a laptop, a camera, and an iPhone. Once he realized he had supporters, he planned a larger road trip a few months later that spanned the country. Its genesis was in catharsis, he says, and to give homeless people a voice they wouldn't normally have. But Horvath was encouraged by how many views the videos got on YouTube. He realized that people actually cared.
"These are people who would never have rolled down their windows on an exit ramp," Horvath says. "Most people have no idea how to deal with homeless people. They're taught that they are bums."
He's recorded everyone from Amy, a single mom who's been homeless a week, to Donny, a guy who's been living on the streets for 21 years. He's talked to extremely articulate people and those who can barely communicate, a gay teen named Celson living in Louisville, Kentucky, and a middle-aged man named JR living in aboriginal British Columbia. A few weeks ago, he set out on his third road trip across the country and in Canada.
Horvath says that communities have responded in surprising ways. When people in Calgary saw the video of Donny, they felt compelled to help him find housing and eventually placed him in his own home. Others have more long-lasting solutions in mind; after watching Horvath's videos, a farmer in Fayetteville, Arkansas, donated 40 acres of land to be used to subsidize food for low-income families.
Regardless of what happens after a video is posted, Horvath says he's "giving influence to people who don't have influence." If homeless people have a complaint or a problem, no one listens to them. Horvath said he felt more powerless than you can even imagine during his homeless years. He explains, "I was in a homeless shelter in 1995 that worked us to death. There were really horrible conditions and we tried to speak out. Years later it was shut down by the FBI. But nobody would listen to us. Now I see the numbers on YouTube go up, and the RTs on Twitter, and I know people are listening."
photo courtesy of Mark Horvath