Mark Horvath has been around the block more than a few times. The former television producer spent eight years on the streets of Los Angeles, addicted to drugs and alcohol and begging on Hollywood Boulevard.
Today, Mr. Horvath is a blogger, videographer and family-outreach worker at an L.A. homeless shelter. He is on tour across Canada, collecting stories of homeless people that he posts on his website invisiblepeople.tv. Reporter Anita Elash met him in Toronto.
Tell me your own story of homelessness.
In 1994, I had this great job, I was the director of distribution services for Starcom Television. After 20 years of bad decisions and drug abuse, I ended up on the streets of Hollywood Boulevard. I rebuilt my life – took about eight years – back to a three-bedroom house, a pool in the backyard, a car in the garage and success on the horizon, and the economy tanked. I lost my job, then the house went into foreclosure, and I lost another job and another. So facing homelessness a second time, but this time sober and wanting to work – capable of working, but there just was no work. I grabbed a camera and went out, and started empowering homeless people to tell their own stories.
So is this just a job for you?
Oh my gosh; it's not a job at all. This is a passion. At first, because I couldn't get any other job, I felt forced. But now it's a choice. I've been offered other work, and now it's a choice to do this.
What is the idea behind invisiblepeople.tv?
It's a conversation about solutions to end homelessness. People are good, but they get caught up in our own lives. The government and non-profits have done a horrible job educating people about homelessness. Invisiblepeople.tv gives homeless people a chance to tell their own story. It starts a conversation, and changes people's paradigm.
The website is called invisiblepeople.tv. Aren't people living on the street kind of hard to miss?
The guy you see on the street with the cardboard sign – that's actually a very small demographic of homelessness. I met a woman named Alma in Winnipeg, and I would have never known she was homeless. She is a grandmother, couch surfing, putting herself through college and you don't see these people on the street corner. You have families tripling up; you have people living in their cars. You have people, especially the homeless youth population, doing survival sex and all kinds of horrible things just to have a place to stay, and you have the huge amount of families living in hotels and they can't save up for first and last month's rent.
This is your first trip to Canada. What has surprised you?
One thing that's brand new to me is people drinking hand sanitizer. It really breaks my heart. That's how far addiction takes you. It's throughout Canada. They put salt in it, and then the alcohol comes to the top. It's free, it's accessible and ever since the H1N1 scare, everybody's got it so you can walk into hospitals and grab them off the walls.
What drives you to do this?
I would stop tomorrow if the impact stopped. It's a lot of sacrifice, and it's also emotional labour. You're meeting people when life is at the worst for them, and their stories break your heart. But it's also encouraging when you look at what some of these people are overcoming.
Also, I'm 50 years old. I have no savings. The chances of me being homeless again are very real. The unconscious driving force behind this is solving homelessness so I don't end up homeless.
How do you deal with the heartbreak?
You keep this tape in your head of the people that you were able to get into housing, and you play that tape. In March, I met Terry Pettigrew in Calgary. He was 58 years old. He'd been homeless since he was 8 years old, and he was dying of cancer. The Calgary Herald put mine and Terry's picture on the front page, and I put up the video that night. Well, his long-lost brother that he hadn't seen for 33 years was reunited with him. They had 53 days together. Terry passed away two months ago, but he was with family and gosh, that makes me just, you know. I wish I could say invisiblepeople.tv did that. I'm the catalyst for change, but there is something bigger than me.
How much money do you earn from this project?
Zero. I am lucky if it covers expenses. I did sell my car, and this time I'm homeless myself because I had to move out of my apartment before I started.
Would you go back to a six-figure salary?
I've actually turned down very lucrative work in marketing and broadcasting. After you meet somebody like Terry Pettigrew and somehow something I did connected him with family before he died, how can you go back to sitting behind a desk? I don't see that.
In your videos, you ask everyone what their three wishes are. What are yours?
I hope I make it back to Los Angeles, which I will. I hope the conversation of ending homelessness continues long after I've left Canada. And I hope I never end up back on the streets.
This interview has been condensed and edited.