Mark Horvath, by pooling resources and drawing on thousands of social media addicts, is working to show how communities can effect change.
It’s easy to mistake Mark Horvath for a self-made man. Take a quick look at his story. “Self-made” seems to be one of the best ways to describe him.
He’s the founder of a website called InvisiblePeople.tv, where he publishes unedited videos of homeless people talking about their lives. He’s also the founder of a website called We Are Visible, a community and tutorial resource that empowers homeless people to set up their own free social media accounts to tell their own story. He’s driven around the country three times visiting homeless communities, filming footage and amassing insane amounts of knowledge about the housing crisis in the United States. He uses Twitter like it’s his job (mostly because, in a one-man media operation, it pretty much is), tweeting out over 50 messages a day, a mixture of useful links, interesting anecdotes and conversations with other Twitter users. His social media presence has earned him titles like one of 11 Twitter Activists You Should Be Following (by the Huffington Post) and one of 5 People Who Broke the Rules of Social Media and Succeeded (by Mashable).
There’s a reason Horvath is inspired to work on InvisiblePeople.tv: He’s been homeless, too—two separate times. Since 2008, when he started the website, he’s been putting his name out there and earning a reputation as a hard-working advocate for the homeless.
I saw the makings of this presumably self-made man last month, when Horvath came to speak at Ithaca College for an event that I organized with my campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity. Throughout the day I served as his guide. As we breezed through the itinerary of his very busy day, the guy fired off tweets whenever he got a chance, continuing his work despite his full day of speaking engagements. With each new audience, he pulled from different experiences he had that were most relevant to the demographic, and every time he spoke, I learned of a new accomplishment and continued to build up this idea of Horvath as a self-made man.
He keynoted in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier this month at the Geneva Forum on Social Change, and we profiled him here at the Good Men Project in October. He’s spoken at the State Department for a technology convention, and in August 2010, YouTube allowed him to curate its homepage for a day with InvisiblePeople.tv videos. He is one of the most contemporary, learn-by-experience cause-marketing experts in the business.
You could argue, perhaps, that the first time Horvath found himself out on the streets, he was a self-ruined man. After moving to Los Angeles from Binghamton, New York, trying to find fame and make it big as a musician, he got into the television industry as a highly paid producer.
“I was a television executive—I did Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy!, Married With Children, 21 Jump Street—back in Hollywood,” Horvath explained. “I was in the manufacturing end. I’ve never met Vanna White, but I was the guy from 1990 to 1994 that got Wheel of Fortune to your TV set.”
Horvath got caught up in the Hollywood culture, started doing heroin, and soon started living as a high-functioning drug addict and alcoholic. That’s when he found himself out on Hollywood Boulevard, living without a job or a home.
So one could make the case that during this first dive into homelessness, he ruined it for himself. But that argument just won’t fly as an explanation for his second encounter with homelessness in 2007; after building himself up again, finding stable housing, steady work doing church marketing work (he has issues with the industry now), and a 780 credit score, Horvath, who has been sober now for 16 years, found himself facing layoff after layoff in St. Louis, Missouri, as the economy continued to fail.
“I made well over six figures,” he said, “and then McDonald’s wouldn’t hire me—I tried. Home Depot wouldn’t hire me—I tried. And all of the other broadcasters and marketers were laying off. So I got into this position where I was 19 months’ unemployed, my house was going into foreclosure, and I was pretty much spent. I was done. I’m a pretty assertive person, and I couldn’t apply for one more job.”
So he picked up a camera, started shooting, and the rest is InvisiblePeople history. Horvath currently lives in Southern California, where his financial status remains somewhat unstable. While he earns some money from speaking engagements, he continues to work at a seasonal homeless shelter in Glendale.
Horvath combats these negative forces keeping homeless people down by exposing them through his videos, which he was inspired to make while doing church marketing. He says he once produced a story on homelessness, but instead of presenting the situation as he saw it, he was encouraged by his bosses to spin the story, editing it so that it would help bring people into the church and raise money for the institution.
“All of the productions had an agenda,” Horvath said. “I felt that the story wasn’t being told. I got really sick of manipulating the story to raise money.”
That’s part of why he started InvisiblePeople.tv—to tell the true story of modern homelessness in America through the perspectives of the people who know the situation best: the homeless people themselves. His videos are raw, unedited interviews with homeless people, asking about their current situation, how they got there, and their hopes for the future.
“Authenticity has replaced production value,” he said of the unedited footage. He’s committed to not changing the story. He has partnerships with large corporations and has accepted sponsorships that have allowed him to travel across the country compiling more stories about homelessness. But he’s wary of partnerships that overstep by influencing the content. “Part of my strategy was to build relationships with causes,” he explained. “Obviously, Budweiser and homelessness aren’t going to mix. There are times when I turned down very good money because it was going to change the story. Any decision I make could change the story for good or worse. You really have to sit back and see how people are going to perceive this.”
So far, people perceive InvisiblePeople.tv and We Are Visible as positive online movements to raise awareness about complicated social issues. Horvath has become such a well-known advocate that his voice can make some serious waves. As a HuffPo blogger, Mark has thrown his support behind programs like Pathways to Housing, which focuses on the “Housing First” relief model, and 100,000 Homes, which aims to get the most vulnerable homeless people—who are closer to death and rely on the most government support—off the streets and into homes.
Beyond that, Mark speaks often about the importance of community. “Housing alone won’t solve homelessness,” he said. “You need community. You’ve got to get the person some dignity—some community. If you take someone out of their social structure, which has revolved around living in a park and panhandling for four or five years, and you put them in a house or in an apartment, that’s a huge culture shock. So it has to have wrap-around services and support services.”
All of Mark’s success reads like a series of individual, personal achievements, so it’s easy to assume that he would claim a title like “self-made man.” But Mark thinks that’s giving himself far too much credit.
When I asked him whether the descriptor was appropriate, he shook his head and referred me to “some quote from Newton that talks about experiencing success thanks to being on the shoulders of a giant.” The quote—as it turns out, it’s Isaac Newton’s statement, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants”—is extraordinarily applicable in Mark’s case.
Horvath’s story forces us to confront the idea of the “self-made man.” He built himself up from humble beginnings to be a well-paid Hollywood executive, then lost it all, only to get back on the horse, earn it all back, and lose it all again. But like many homeless people, Horvath slipped into poverty partly because of the lack of positive, helpful, non-bureaucratic systems in place and the prevalence of social stigmas and policies that don’t favor people in poverty. Similarly, it took support from the homeless community to turn the idea of spreading the word about these systems, attitudes, and policies that maintain our country’s homelessness problem into a reality. Horvath did neither of these things—spiral into poverty or build himself up again—on his own.
He has, without a doubt, been able to make positive use of his own intellect, creativity, and charisma to make a name for himself. But his own renown as a leading advocate and Twitter activist are merely happy by-products of his achievement of his primary mission: to make a name for the homeless and heighten awareness about the conditions of homeless people in the United States. Without the homeless people who were receptive participants in Mark’s projects; without the online community willing to pass along the InvisiblePeople.tv videos; without the companies and organizations that Mark has partnered with in the past three years, it’s difficult to guess where Mark would be. He is self-made in that he has been able to recognize his talents, take advantage of opportunities that came his way, and craft himself into a leading documentarian of homelessness and witness to the scope of the issue.
But in so many other facets, Mark Horvath’s success is borne out of the community support he has received, in the same way that homeless people rely on their communities to become stable. When Mark speaks or writes about his work, he is not speaking for himself. He is speaking for other passionate advocates for poverty relief, for people like himself who have combated their own homelessness, and for those who remain homeless, searching for the strength to continue, struggling to make themselves heard, or failing to find their own voice.
—Photo Randy Stewart