Photo and story by Kevin D. Hendricks

Armed with a video camera and an iPhone, Mark Horvath walks up to a pregnant homeless woman and asks if she wants to tell her story (video). The result is painful and eye-opening: Turning to drugs to numb the pain, forced into sex for survival, ending up pregnant and not knowing who the father is.

This is what homeless advocate Mark Horvath does. He talks to the people we’ve decided are invisible and tells their stories, posting the raw, unedited video to his site, InvisiblePeople.tv. He launched the nonprofit site in 2008 while only a few weeks away from being homeless himself — again. In the mid-1990s Horvath spent nearly a year homeless on the streets of Los Angeles.

The experience of being homeless gives Horvath a unique perspective and urgency. That passion has taken him on two cross-country road trips, he’s appeared on CNN and NPR, and last spring he won the $50,000 Pepsi Challenge at SXSW.

A new book inspired by Horvath, Open Our Eyes: Seeing the Invisible People of Homelessness (full disclosure: I’m the editor of that book), shares the stories of 35 homeless people, offering an opportunity to move beyond the stereotypes. With a foreword by Trust Agent author Chris Brogan, the book also includes reflections from social media experts, nonprofit heroes, technology executives and more, sharing their perspective on homelessness and how Horvath’s work has inspired them. The book is a manual to motivate action and all proceeds benefit InvisiblePeople.tv.

We talked to Horvath about his work and this new book:

Why did you launch a site to help homeless people when you were nearly homeless yourself?

Two reasons:

1) When I started InvisiblePeople.tv, I was close to 19 months unemployed, moving fast forward into foreclosure. I don’t think I could have filled out one more job application, and I filled out a lot. I couldn’t find work and I had to do something to keep from going crazy.

2) I knew from my own experience that the homeless story wasn’t being told correctly. We needed to empower the homeless to tell their own story. Nonprofits would produce these pieces, but it was always for fundraising and sugar coated whatever the nonprofit needed. People detach from that. I don’t want to call InvisiblePeople.tv reality TV, but it’s as real as you can get. It’s unedited and raw. You get the good and the bad. You get to hear what life is like on the streets. And that’s how we effect change.

So with those two things pulling at me I didn’t have much of a choice. I was forced into it. I’d love to quit, but I just can’t. It has become my life. Besides, great men and women are ordinary men and women who do not quit.

You’ve crisscrossed the country twice now — in 2009 and 2010 — talking to homeless people. What’s it like out there? Is it getting any better?

We need more Waffle Houses. Seriously, it’s not getting better and it’s going to get worse. We have a problem with the older generation now entering retirement years without any savings or healthcare. That’s going to put a huge tax on the social service system to an extent we’ve never seen before.

I’ve traveled all over and what I can tell you about homelessness is that it’s not the geographic location that changes homelessness, it’s the community. The homeless people in Anchorage, Alaska, have to do different things to survive than those in Tampa, Fla. However the reason there are more homeless in Los Angeles is not because it’s warmer weather, but because there’s so much bureaucracy. Bureaucracy kills.

A community can embrace homeless or bulldoze it. If you embrace homelessness and try to figure out a solution — like 100,000 Homes — you get people off the streets and save lives and save money. If you go into a city and there’s aggressive panhandling, it’s because there’s no services for the people. We need to think of creative ways to get them off the streets.

You say in your contribution to the book Open Our Eyes that you’re not a hero and you’re not even that nice. If you’re not a hero, who is?

The big hero of my life is my stepfather, Casey Jones. Casey was always honest, always real, always admitted his mistakes. He was a very good role model for me.

That’s one of the problems we have today—we have a trust deficit, as Chris Brogan says in Trust Agents. If you trusted the Salvation Army and other large homeless services, there wouldn’t be any InvisiblePeople.tv. We need more integrity and commitment to build trust. That’s what my stepfather had.

And I’m really not that nice. To me, a hero is like Peter Parker, a nice kid who does nice things. That’s not me. I’m just loud and pushy.

The book supports you and your work with the nonprofit InvisiblePeople.tv. So how will that money be used?

Money that comes in to InvisiblePeople.tv is used to continue the education and activism campaigns. It continues efforts like WeAreVisible.com.

I’m very grateful. People on social media have kept me going. I’ve been honored to win the Pepsi grant, but it’s the $25 gift that’s kept InvisiblePeople.tv going. I get beds when homeless people move into apartments, get RVs out of impound — whatever’s needed.

What InvisiblePeople.tv does is change perceptions. Millions of people who would never have rolled down their window at an exit ramp to speak to a homeless person have been touched by InvisiblePeople.tv. Because of that housing programs have been started. That is amazing and proves we need more.

What’s the best way we can help homeless people?

I just posted 35 ways you can help the homeless on Twitter.

There are a lot of great causes. Maybe homelessness isn’t the cause that touches you. Then find something. I support charity: water. Whatever. Find your thing.  Maybe homelessness isn’t your cause, but there’s enough madness in the world that you can find a cause that fits you.

If homelessness is your cause, then your first step is education. Part of education is listening. If you’re walking down the street, just listen to people. Reach out and get involved at your local level. Most homeless services are overtaxed and don’t know how to coordinate volunteers. So don’t just go to one place and give up after a bad experience. You need to try a few until you find one that can use your talents. It can be as simple as writing letters to your senators. Maybe you can cook. Maybe you like to talk to people. Maybe you’re an accountant. Whatever you can do, we need you.

This post was first published at HalogenTV.com. Used with permission.

Posted on Apr 11, 2011  |  Category: Inspiration  |  2 Comments
  • Mooch Mooch

    The more articles I read about Mark, the more I learn. I had been wondering if he won the Pepsi Challenge or not - and now i know! Congrats!! And if I may, I'd like to mention one of my own posts where I've listed some not so common items homeless people would benefit from. These are actual items I use myself while living in my car in Los Angeles. http:// doingithomeless.com/cans-are-good-socks-even-better-hear-moochs-recommendation/
    Mooch | 28/04/2011 3:57 am

  • Video offers Incredible access for Donors « Operation Church Video offers Incredible access for Donors « Operation Church

    [...] Mark started the project when he found himself homeless, and when asked why he launched the site Mark said (excerpts taken from an interview by Kevin D. Hendricks): [...]
    Video offers Incredible access for Donors « Operation Church | 27/10/2011 1:44 pm