By Rachael Chong
On the evening of the final presidential debate, while others were busy quipping bayonets, Mark Horvath offered a sobering counterpoint, "Found a large homeless camp under a freeway. I don't have enough socks for everyone and not sure if it's safe to go in." The self-described Chief Evangelistic Officer for Invisible People TV, Horvath is on a mission to make the homeless visible. By the end of the debate he had tweeted about a run to Walmart, the delivery of 100 pairs of clean, dry socks to the camp, and an encounter with a mother and her two young children. With social media, it's easy to navigate human suffering from a distance and still feel engaged, but Horvath isn't about to let you get away with it.
You start a lot of your videos, "You're homeless, tell me about it." So I ask you the same. You were homeless. Tell me about it.
Eighteen years ago, I had a very good job in the television industry. Seventeen years ago, I became homeless, living on Hollywood Boulevard. I had rebuilt my life to a point where I had a three-bedroom house and a 780 credit score; then in 2007, the economy took a nosedive. Like many Americans, I found myself unemployed, living off my credit cards, and hoping for the best. The best never did come, but several layoffs--along with foreclosure on my house--did.
By November of 2008, I found myself once again laid off. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and to be honest, I was scared of living on the streets of Hollywood once again. I could see homelessness all around me, but I couldn't bear to look. I was turning away because I felt their pain.
Don't waste a good crisis. It was a simple concept and it's how InvisiblePeople.tv started. For the most part, I had lost everything but some furniture, my car, a box of photos, laptop, small camera, and my iPhone. My laptop could not cut video. As an experienced TV producer, I knew that quality videos need to have a music bed, nice graphics, B-roll, and be well-produced. I almost gave up on the idea of a video blog for our homeless friends. But after looking at what I didn't have and all the problems that were stopping me, I decided to just use what I had and started to interview homeless people.
My own homelessness was hell, but ironically, it may have been the best thing that ever happened to me.
Why do we look away from homelessness?
Homelessness is not a sexy cause unless it's around Thanksgiving. It is the one time of year that people in America actually acknowledge that we have homelessness in our own communities. Most shelters have to turn away volunteers on Thanksgiving Day. Come January, March, or June, it's nearly impossible to find committed volunteers. It seems that during the rest of the calendar year, society finds it easier to ignore the biggest social crisis that's right here in our own country.
Why is that? I think it's a few reasons. First of all, everyone is busy. Ten years ago, I could call up a friend to go out for lunch that same day. Now, I have to schedule the phone call to schedule lunch six months in advance. If I stop to help a homeless person, it's not easy--it takes time--and it's dirty (I think many of us can relate to that). Another reason is that if we stop to acknowledge a homeless person, especially these days, we have to feel their pain. That may be too much for many people, as many of us are less than a paycheck away from "flying a sign" on an exit ramp. We would then also have to admit that we have become a huge failure as a society by the fact that there are actually people living without adequate housing. Thirty-seven percent of the homeless population in America are families with children. That's unacceptable. Homelessness is a very complex issue and there are many reasons that people try and ignore homelessness. Perhaps the largest one is that we feel powerless to help and it is something that cannot be solved. Over the years people have given (both with their time and money) to charities that claim to be fighting homelessness, yet we see more and more people with cardboard signs in our neighborhood.
That's why InvisiblePeople.tv's work is so important. Nonprofits, governments, and charities have done an atrocious job of educating the general public about homelessness. InvisiblePeople.tv connects people to the face of homelessness in a direct and meaningful way, a way that humanizes the subject and builds empathy with the viewer. This is much more important and impactful than simple awareness: We can end homelessness, save lives, and save taxpayers' money.
There's a lot of noise online. How do you engage your followers on a tough topic using social media?
I wish I could say that [not editing the videos] was a conscious marketing decision, but the truth is that since I couldn't edit the videos, it was completely by accident. What I learned was that authenticity has replaced production value. Nonprofits have spun the homeless story so much that people have detached from it. InvisiblePeople.tv is raw, real, and unedited stories from actual people that are currently experiencing homelessness. No edit points. And then people started watching. Currently, we have over 3.4 million views on YouTube alone. That's huge considering the topic is homelessness. The online statistic that I love the most is that on average, 15% of people visiting the site stay 5 to 10 minutes. Eight percent stay 10 to 30 minutes! That is crazy retention!
YouTube is a social network, so that's where I start. Then, I use both Twitter and Facebook to engage people, but mostly Twitter. Twitter allows people to travel vicariously with me under a bridge or into a tent city in real time. But just like in the videos, the way that I stand out most is by sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly about homelessness.
I am also very conscious about my story. Last year the big buzz was on storytelling. This year it's content marketing. Next year it will be something similar with a different title. Be real, be yourself, and share content that engages people to take action. Although that sounds very simple, it does take some effort ... and lots of common sense! It's also important to note that perhaps the hardest challenge about the story is protecting your story. These days everything is connected and everything communicates. We have to look at each and every decision we make from an external point of view. If the decision has a negative influence on your story, do not do it.
What do you want your fans and followers to do after they see one of your videos?
The purpose of InvisiblePeople.tv is to make everyone known. We believe that once someone knows the story of a man or woman on the exit ramp holding the cardboard sign, it's harder to ignore homelessness. Almost everyone has a paradigm shift on homelessness, and at the very least we hope that people will share the video that affects them the most with everyone in their network. Some people have started simply carrying around socks to give out when they meet a homeless person. Homeless services in London have invited me back to assist developing programs that help our homeless friends connect to others via social media. From the smallest actions to major housing projects being created, InvisiblePeople.tv continues to have impact in fighting homelessness.
Can you share a particular success story with one of your videos that happened as a result of your efforts on social media?
Perhaps the most miraculous was Terry Petigrew. When I met Terry, he was dying of cancer. He was 58 years old and had lived on the streets since he was eight. While I was interviewing Terry, he actually was encouraging me. He was so amazing that I went back and uploaded the video on the same night. The Calgary Herald put the video on their home page and Terry's long lost brother of 33 years saw the video. The two brothers were quickly reunited and Terry had a few months with his family before he died. I get emotional just thinking about it. Interesting enough though is that same night that I met Terry I also met Donny, who had lived on the streets for 21 years. The community saw Donny's video and targeted him for housing. And then there was the homeless grandmother putting herself through college. Someone saw her video and helped her get housing. She has now graduated. I could go on and on and on.
Was there a moment when you realized your life would be dedicated to giving back, to giving more than you received? What was that moment?
That moment happens often. It has to, otherwise I would give up. I do all this in my spare time. Funding InvisiblePeople.tv has been a challenge so I also work a day job at a homeless shelter. My personal finances are still in crisis. People don't get to see the behind the scenes work to make all this happen. It's nonstop and rarely do I get a moment away from homelessness.
Maybe the biggest moment was my first national road trip. I was unemployed at the time and the main sponsor pulled out because of the economy. Because I had gave my word I still hopped in a car and left Los Angeles with not enough funding to get to the East Coast, much less back to Los Angeles. There was a point while driving that I realized all of my past experiences are being used to make InvisiblePeople.tv happen. InvisiblePeople.tv is the closest I've felt to a true destiny. Visiting with Larry Pettigrew and his wife in Moose Jaw was also a special moment where I knew something bigger than me was at work here.
Tell us the names and stories of three individuals who inspire you most with their generosity.
It's so very hard to pick just three people as being most generous because so many people have helped me and InvisiblePeople.tv. When I was going through the darkness of unemployment a few years back, several people paid my rent or gave me gift cards to buy food. There is no doubt without their help I would have ended back out on the streets. There are people on social media who continue to share InvisiblePeople.tv stories, even though homelessness is never the most popular cause. There are people who ask me to speak at their conferences or give me free passes so that I can network and learn. There are people who will take time out of their busy day to counsel me when I need it most. Please know I am so very grateful for each and every person or organization that helps InvisiblePeople.tv
Beth Kanter is the most generous person I know. I don't know how she does it, actually. She is always helping people and nonprofits all over the world. Beth has helped me help homeless families when they are moving into apartments. She will stop and buy pizza for a homeless guy on the street. She used her influence to open doors for InvisiblePeople.tv. If it wasn't for her, I would have never spoke at the State Department. Heck, if it wasn't for Beth I would not have spoken at a lot of places. But I'm just one small person in the world of Beth Kanter's love. She is active in helping Cambodian children supporting orphanages and schools (proceeds from her book helped pay for a Cambodian girl's college education). Actually, Beth supports almost every great cause out there. But her generous heart shows the most when she takes the time to answer anyone's questions. I have enormous respect and love for Beth. Her generosity is genuine and real. We need more Beth Kanter's in this world.
When I think of generous, I think of Vonage co-founder Jeff Pulver. I can honestly tell you that my work would have stopped years ago if it wasn't for Jeff Pulver's love and support. Jeff supports many causes, but what stands out to me is the way that Jeff supports people. It is difficult to explain, but I have seen Jeff help people when no one else would. Jeff also creates a community where people are loved for who they really are. Time and again I have brought a homeless person to his conferences and that homeless person was treated no different than anyone else. There are no words to explain how special that is to witness. Jeff Pulver is family and his cast of characters is also family to me.
For the last three years Liz Strauss has brought me in to be featured as a nonprofit at SOBcon, a very special conference with major influencers. Now understand, Liz could pick any cause, but she picks InvisiblePeople.tv. There is no way could I ever afford to attend such an event, but each year she brings me in and I get to network with the "who's who" in the blogging and social media world. As if that's not cool enough, on the last day, all the people attending focus on helping a nonprofit (several are invited each year). This past year Liz orchestrated an event with General Motors and Murphy Oil to benefit InvisiblePeople.tv. They even had to get a permit from the city of Chicago. I cannot even imagine how much work took place behind the scenes, but I do know that Liz has been so very generous to many people and I am grateful to call her a friend.
Come back November 30 for our next piece on Danielle Brigida.
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.