Giving homeless people a voice on the Web

Photo by @kanter, posted by Mark Horvath on his Twitter feed, @hardlynormal.

Mark Horvath knows all about homelessness: he lost his job and home during the economic crisis in 2008. But for him, the crisis turned into an opportunity: convinced that social media can help isolated people build a support network they wouldn’t have otherwise, he has set about helping homeless people across the US find a voice on the Web.
 
Horvath’s project started with the blog InvisiblePeople.tv, on which he posts short video interviews of dozens of homeless people across the United States. His goal: to allow each person to tell his or her story, and show readers and Web users that every homeless person is different, has a unique background and an interesting story to tell. He asks his interviewees the same three questions: How do you survive? What's your future like? If you had three wishes, what would they be?
 
Step two of Horvath's project goes even further: his latest website, WeAreVisible.com, is designed to teach the homeless how to use social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter to reach out to others and communicate between themselves.
 
Mark saying goodbye to a homeless person he has just interviewed. Photo by Chris Walter, posted on Flickr by InvisiblePeople.tv.
 
Contributors

“If isolated people learn how to get their voices heard on Facebook or Twitter, I think it could change their lives”

Mark Horvath, 49, lives in Los Angeles. A former marketing executive, he founded InvisiblePeople.tv after losing his job in 2008. He also writes the blog HardlyNormal.com.
 
I began the Invisible People project in 2008, when the global economic crisis hit. I lost my job, my home and was facing homelessness. At the time I was panicked: sixteen years ago, I had already experienced living on the street, and I didn’t want to go there again. Now I tell people: don’t waste a good crisis. It can also turn into an amazing opportunity.
 
'Giving a voice to the invisible and voiceless'

I began by interviewing people in my city, Los Angeles. Then I started travelling around my state, then neighbouring states. Last summer, I went on a road trip across the country, and I have even been to talk to people in one Latin American country, Peru. People tend to lump all the homeless into one category.  That’s why they become invisible and voiceless. What I wanted to do was give all these very different, very interesting people a voice. I have spoken to and filmed over 200 people so far, but I keep in mind that some of the strongest stories – the people who are really most isolated or have gone through the toughest things – are those who wouldn’t speak to me. They won’t speak to anyone anymore.
 
One of the stories that most impacted me was Angela's. She was dying under a bridge in Atlanta, Georgia, when I spoke to her. She had almost no teeth and seemed to have trouble answering my questions. I turned to the Christian group I was with, who introduced me to her, and asked them how they were trying to help her. And they said “we bring her sandwiches”. That day, my entire perception of how people should help the homeless changed. I used to think that any small thing you can do helps, but that day I came to the conclusion that sometimes one sandwich for one person isn’t enough. We need to join forces and act together to solve the bigger problem. And I’m convinced that social media networks can be a part of the solution.
 
Angela. Video uploaded on the YouTube channel InvisiblePeople.tv.
 
Step two of my project is WeAreVisible.com, a social media literacy training site for homeless people, with, simple, step-by-step tutorials to teach beginners how to set up and use a Gmail, Facebook or Twitter account.  On the website, there are testimonies of people who explain that, as a homeless person in real life, they couldn’t interact with others because their homelessness created a barrier. But online, where no-one knew who they were, they were gradually able to turn a few friendly ‘tweets’ into real friendships, and slowly re-connect with the rest of the world.
 
One homeless blogger explained that she first started writing about the hardships of living on the street online to “get the pain out”. To her surprise, she began receiving dozens of support messages from Web users, but also from other homeless people. Connecting and sharing experiences with others who had been on the street and survived gave her new courage, and she in turn encouraged others who had no hope left. Her story made me realise something: I saw social networks as a way for charities or outreach programmes to help homeless people. But it turns out that they are also a way for homeless people to help their peers.
 
'People don't imagine homeless people online, but many still have a computer'
 
People don’t imagine homeless people online, but many still have a computer, or mobile phone, or video camera left over from their previous life. There are free Internet connections for them in public libraries. If they learn how to make their voices be heard on Twitter, or Facebook, or YouTube, I believe it could really change their life.
 
Ironically, even as the project’s popularity grows, my personal financial situation is still in something of a crisis. I live in a small furnished apartment and work for a homeless centre to pay the rent, and take care of Invisible People.tv as a personal project. People keep telling me the project is great, but no-one so far has offered me a job in marketing or social media! Although frankly, even if part of me would like to achieve some kind of financial stability, I feel deep down that I would be unhappy going back to a regular marketing job after my experience with the Invisible People project.

Voices from the street: the stories of homeless people

Cotton, in Greensboro, North Carolina.

 

Teren and Mike, in Bend, Oregon.

Dee, in Anchorage, Alaska.

Ray, in Sacramento, California.

 

Jean and her children, in Missouri. All videos uploaded on the YouTube channel InvisiblePeople.tv.

The farm that grows free food for the homeless

"The Farm", 40 acres of land on which members of the Cobblestone Project produce fresh fruit and vegetables for a farmers' market and meals for local food shelters. Posted on Flickr by InvisiblePeople.tv.

Gift vouchers with which homeless people can purchase fresh produce from "The Farm". Posted on Flickr by InvisiblePeople.tv.
 
“The response to the project has already gone so much further than I could have ever imagined,” says Horvarth. Bloggers from around the world have contacted him, and he is invited to speak in universities and communities across the country. Sometimes, his presentations inspire communities to take action, as was the case in Bentonville, Arkansas, where a farmer donated 40 acres of land to the Cobblestone project, a local community initiative which plants and harvests crops and donates the produce to homeless shelters.


Post written with France 24 journalist Lorena Galliot.

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