Jonathan Hedvat’s video interviews for Storied.tv share the stories and words of New York City’s homeless community.
Stories are the creative conversion of life itself
into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience.
They are the currency of human contact.
— Robert McKee
A few weeks ago, I was riding the long escalator up from Penn Station, reading something on my phone, when a homeless man appeared next to me and asked me for money. I looked up and reflexively mumbled, “No, sorry.” He looked me in the eye, said, “Either give or don’t. Sorry? Don’t say sorry.” Then he walked away.
It got me thinking. What is the reason we do not give directly to those in need? I think there are two reasons.
1. Perhaps it’s because we don’t trust them. We wonder whether they are going to use the money for alcohol or drugs.
2. But a more overarching reason is that we don’t know their story—and we never get to know that story. No one ever stops and says, “Hey, what’s your story?“
This got me thinking about the potential for a non-profit project to help homeless people to tell their stories. It’s inspired a bit by Humans of New York, in the sense of doing interviews that get at the crux of things and also in the sense of wanting these stories to be easy to share through social media.
So, I did what anyone would do. I posted this on my Facebook page, and asked:
“Does anything like this exist? Is this a completely stupid idea?”
The response was overwhelming, with many friends sharing their views and experiences with giving to the homeless and their thoughts on the above project. Some even pointed me in the direction of similarly inspired projects, as well as several organizations doing work in support of the homeless, such Invisible People, Unity of Greater New Orleans, and New York Cares.
But most significantly, based on my random post wondering about an idea to tell the stories of homeless people in NYC, one of my friends said he knew someone who had just begun an effort to do just that right here in New York City, with a site called Storied.tv. And so it was that I met Jonathan Hedvat of Storied.tv. We met for coffee to speak about his work, I watched a few of his videos, and here we are.
Jonathan has been walking the streets of New York City with his girlfriend, conducting video interviews of homeless people, in an effort to make this largely invisible under-society visible, to help tell their stories.
As the examples below show, the results are compelling.
Charles on 19th and Broadway
Here is one of Jonathan’s videos of Charles on 19th and Broadway. Charles is a Navy veteran who lost his father at age 15. He has hepatitis, AIDs, and macular degeneration, but has been unable to get medical care, through military/VA channels or otherwise. Despite all this, Charles is one of the most articulate and positive people I have encountered in quite some time:
”Poor-itis” or poverty is not contagious you know? . .. Some people not all people but some people are like they ignore poverty, poor people like, I dunno, um… you know what I mean they really just like you’re not there. Say “excuse me” and they walk…and…I think that’s really terrible like to deny somebody their existence. You I prefer they tell me, you know, go fuck yourself… get a job…whatever, but to totally ignore somebody’s existence is too much and I seen it happen a lot with people . . . The middle class is shrinking you know and the very poor and the very rich are growing and growing and there are so many people that are one paycheck or three paychecks away from this.
* * *
Life’s beautiful. Enjoy it every day is…is…is a blessing just be glad to be alive and especially here in Manhattan where you’re like in the center of the universe. . . . It’s true. The day is the same; all the days are the same it’s how you look at ‘em. So, like, you know, just have gratitude and be nice to one another in some way. It doesn’t…it takes a little bit of effort but you get a payback. I said you have a nice smile to people, sometimes it’s a bit of work. I gotta meditate or pray you know to get to a state you know where I can put the energy in but then if I smile at somebody and they smile back then we both feel good and its free. You know??
The complete video interview may be viewed below:
Tony on 33rd and Park Avenue
In another one of Jonathan’s video interviews, this one with Tony on 33rd and Park Avenue, Tony tells the story of being raised by an abusive mother, of recreational drug use, of a girlfriend who became terribly sick with lupus, of losing his baseball card and sports memorabilia business, and how, after choosing to leave the shelter, he has been saving up money to try to turn his life around:
I left the shelter. Came on the streets…didn’t know what to expect…I got lost. And by getting lost I was able to find myself. I was still using, not cocaine but I was using stuff called K2, its artificial marijuana they sell for 5 dollars in the convenience stores. Using that, so I was around a lot of people I seen the effects of it and I had a friend who was trying to quit everything also and he helped motivate me. Since then, I stopped. Started saving up money. Little by little.
. . .
Um and my plan is to save . . . My plan is to save up between ten and fifteen thousand dollars start my business again . . . and get a place.
. . .
When you live on the street you have zero expenses. You don’t pay for food, you don’t pay for rent, I don’t pay for cigarettes, the only thing I do is pay for maybe two cups of coffee a day. That’s basically it. And the blessings I’ve been getting…I’ve been giving I’ve been helping other people out I feel happy every day. Every day that I’m clean is a blessing and it’s a reality.
But you can’t change unless you want to change and once you do find it in you to change you can find inspiration and motivation from everything around you. Music, people, anything. And…it’s not easy but…every day…every day is a blessing. Even the bad days, even the rainy days, even the cold days, even days when bad things happen I’m happy.
The complete video interview may be viewed below:
As the author Andrew Solomon has shown, there are joyful and hopeful stories to be found inside the darkness. Stopping to speak to a person who is struggling, stopping to really listen to what they have to say, can reveal incredible positive thoughts and perspectives that may seem shocking given the circumstances. This is true far more often that you might think.
This is not to say that its all positive. So many of these people struggle to find food, shelter, and safety.
It is my hope, and Jonathan’s (and we hope many others), that sharing these stories will shine a light on both: that it will reveal slivers of bright light while at the same time motivating us to help people who are deeply in need.
I will tell you something about stories (he said). They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, All we have to fight off illness and death.
— Leslie Marmon Silko
Also look out for a forthcoming Storied.tv series that The Good Men Project will be hosting on its YouTube video channel.
(Photo Credit: Storied.tv/Youtube Channel (screen capture))
Thanks to Joseph Wertzberger for introducing me to Jonathan Hedvat. Thanks also to Lisa Duggan and Duncan Rogers for their volunteer efforts to assist the mission of Storied.tv.
For more on the particular problem of Veteran homelessness, please see EndVeteranHomelessness.Org and The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Thank you to Dr. Patricia E. Gilhooly for providing these resources.
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