Mark Horvath’s energy is contagious. The fast-talking social media expert and founder of InvisiblePeople.tv came to Seattle in June and captivated a venue full of mostly marketing professionals at a Belltown event sponsored by Social Media Club. Popularly known by his Twitter handle @hardlynormal, Horvath travels the world creating videos of homeless people as they tell their stories, and he shares the videos online to raise awareness about homelessness.
His work has achieved widespread acclaim and has been featured by the Los Angeles Times, CNN, CBS, Mashable and NPR. The Huffington Post named him one of “11 Twitter Activists You Should Be Following,” and YouTube gave him its home page for a day. He has even received sponsorships to continue his work from Ford Motor Company, Hanes and Hertz Rent-a-Car.
There’s no doubt that Horvath knows a thing or two about media marketing. He also knows something about homelessness. He lost a six-figure salary at a television syndication distribution company 18 years ago, while struggling with a drug addiction. He ended up homeless on Hollywood Boulevard. Eventually he was able to get help: He got off the street, kicked heroin, found God and began working for a televangelist. Then, in 2008, he lost his job, and his house went into foreclosure. Unemployment ran out. This time, his downturn wasn’t drug related but simply economic, collateral damage from the financial crisis. Homelessness, again, was on the horizon.
Not sure what to do, but armed with a professional background in marketing and film production, Horvath decided to take his skills on the road. His goal was to help educate society about the realities of homelessness by “making the invisible visible.” So, with $45, his video camera and laptop, he began recording homeless peoples’ stories and posting them on Twitter. Then he made a website. As more bloggers shared the videos and as he gained more Twitter followers, his work spread and the stories began reaching a broader audience. Communities mobilized to help their homeless neighbors. Horvath says he started with the simple goal of educating the public. As he said in an interview, he wants to end homelessness and has become a leading voice on the issue.
What is “Invisible People”
“Invisible People” is a storytelling organization that empowers homeless people to tell their own story.
How did it start?
Years ago I had a great job in the television industry. Then I ended up homeless on Hollywood Boulevard. [Before becoming homeless] I had a new house, a new car and a job. Then the economy tanked. I lost the job, lost another job, lost another job and lost the house to foreclosure. [Then I experienced] 19 months of unemployment. So I grabbed a video camera, went out and started empowering homeless people to tell their own stories. We don’t need to hear from another executive director or another politician or some research doctorate at some university talk about homelessness. We need to hear from the people experiencing it themselves. That’s where the power of Invisible People lies.
In your presentation at Social Media Club, you talked about the bureaucracy that homeless people navigate just to receive services. You said, “The system is broken.” Please explain.
Twenty years ago they came up with this idea called the continuum of care. It makes great sense to have an individualized agency to handle a person’s problems, [for example], a homeless veteran or a single mom. Or somebody that’s HIV positive. But we have become so segmented, and we are horrible at communicating. There are people that fall through the gaps. If there are gaps in the safety net, fix them! One of the biggest issues is communication: Agencies don’t communicate with each other. And we’re all fighting for the same funding, the same scraps. The single mom living in her van is at the library looking for services online, but the majority of homeless services websites are donor-centric. They’re not servicing the people online. I can rent a hotel room anywhere in the world in real time [online], but a homeless person has to physically go to an agency. You sit in an office for four, five, six hours, and then you see a case manager. Then you fill out all this paperwork, and you’re really lucky if you get put on a waiting list. If you’re really, really lucky, you get some bus tokens to go back. Then you do it again and again and again, and pretty soon you give up.
How do you use social media to share peoples’ stories?
[Social media] is an amazing advocacy tool. The more of us that are explaining [our experiences] and sharing our challenges about living on the streets, the more we’ll see change. Social media gives power to the consumer. I know a mom living in her van in Kent. I gave her a camera, and one of the first things she did was start videoing system failures. People would say to her, “You just want to be homeless!” So she videoed herself [while] trying to call to get into a shelter [that was full]. The more that we use our collective voice as homeless people, whether we blog, whether we tweet, or whether we use Facebook, the more we’re going to see change. Also, when you’re out on the streets, it’s extremely lonely, and [using social media] helps alleviate isolation. So it’s not how I use social media, it’s how [homeless people] need to use social media. We need to listen to the homeless people we’re serving. That’s how we’re going to get better and change and actually provide the services that people need.
What have been some of your major social media accomplishments?
YouTube gave me their home page for a day. I’m the first “cause” to speak at Twitter headquarters. The LA Times, Ricki Lake and MTV have all written about or featured “Invisible People” in some way. I could go on. But to me, the most important [accomplishments] were the 50 kids in Baton Rouge that didn’t have shoes and within an hour had brand new shoes [after Twitter followers heard their story and donated]. The individuals who have been housed. Or when the Canadian government [commissioned] us to go to 24 cities in Canada to help create an organization that’s going to save thousands of lives and lots of money. We have been able to reach a new stakeholder that’s not the typical nonprofit community, people that didn’t know about the realities of homelessness. That’s the power of social media.
How has homelessness become normalized in our society?
I have two big fears. One is that society has become anesthetized to homelessness. I see that in some communities like Seattle and Portland. It’s almost like it’s meant to be, and that’s scary because it shouldn’t be meant to be. The other [fear] is criminalization of homelessness. That is really scary. It’s growing because it’s a quick fix. We want to get them out of the park, well, let’s pass laws and boom! They’re out of the park. But whenever we pass those laws, well, you might as well just open your wallet because the most expensive solution to ending homelessness is incarceration.
There are other solutions, like the “housing first” model for the chronic homeless, but we need shelters, too. Shelters provide a valuable service, especially for people that are just hitting homelessness temporarily. And that’s about 60 percent of homelessness, especially now because of the economic crisis. You have a family, they lost their job, they lose their place to stay: The housing first model doesn’t work for them, but a shelter model does. We need to start really focusing on the people on the streets. Whether it’s shelters or housing first or other models out there, let’s start implementing some of these strategies and working together as a community to end homelessness.
What motivates you to do this work?
When I first started, it was pretty easy math. If I traveled and helped empower homeless people to tell their own stories, somehow I survived. Somebody would help me with rent, or somebody would buy me a meal, and it was pretty easy. Then I ended up working in homeless services in Los Angeles for four years, because people don’t fund [educational projects to build] awareness. Now, because of my social media and notoriety, I could walk back into a six-figure marketing job. But I don’t see myself sitting behind a desk making other people money. Once you get the taste of helping people, once it gets into your blood and into your spirit, it’s there. You can’t remove it. If I look back at my life and all the different experiences, jobs and education that I’ve had, it all goes right to this one point in time. It’s almost as if my entire destiny has been created just to fight homelessness.
In your lecture, you said there are three things we need to end homelessness: housing, jobs and health services. What can ordinary people do?
First, find out which organizations in your community are providing housing, jobs and health services. Second, contact them and ask, “How can I help?” Some places aren’t good at managing volunteers, but don’t give up. Find some place to be. Maybe you’re an accountant. Maybe you work in media. Maybe you work in marketing. Maybe you’re unemployed. Take your skills to someplace that’s going to use them. And here’s the magic: Whatever’s going on in your life — maybe you lost your job, or you got a flat tire, or your girlfriend left you — you get outta yourself, and go help somebody else.
All of a sudden your day gets better, then your week and then your month. It gives you perspective.