“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.
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.