In 1953, Ralph Ellison wrote The Invisible Man a book I was required to read in college in the 1960s and one that has shaped my thinking. The invisible man in that book was a black man, one that you would pass by without seeing; you could say what you wanted within earshot of him and it did not matter, because well, it was as if he wasn't there.
Over the years, I have become aware of all sorts of invisible people in the world, those whom we are more comfortable ignoring than acknowledging; those whose problems do not concern us, because their poverty or affliction was not our doing.
Mark Horvath has been a commercial TV producer and a recording artist. He's also a great writer and story teller. Earlier in his diverse career, he was teen age pot dealer and would end up being one of those invisible people along Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. If I had passed him by in 1995, I probably would not have seen him at all--except for the large lizard on his shoulder.
Mark is now producing TV again at invisiblepeople.TV. He is also tweeting at Hardly Normal. To say his new endeavor is being done on a shoestring might exaggerate his assets. But the next time you want a dose of reality TV, try watching some f Mark's incredibly interesting, moving and occasionally inspirational episodes.
His story is below, but first one other note: Mark could really use some editing equipment. If you have some to spare contact him through me or at Hardly Normal.
1. Let's start with your background. Where were you born and raised? What did you aspire to do when you grew up?
I grew up In Binghamton, NY. At age 14 until I was 16 I sold an average of 20 pounds of marijuana per week. It was my first business experience. As a kid, I could not come home with a new car so the group of kids that helped me --my “employees” would spend event cent on anything fun.
I also started to play drums professionally--meaning I made money--at age 14. By the time I was 16 music gave me the same power that selling drugs did, and since people now gave me drugs to hang with the ‘band,’ and since I was no longer a minor and laws changed if I was caught selling drugs - I stopped selling.
At 17, I formed a record and publishing company and produced my first single. Music became my life. I also learned how to do lots with a little. I did not have money to compete with major labels, but by using a little extra effort and creative thinking the stuff I produced came across with big budget excellence.
At age 26, my girlfriend and I moved to LA. I did a little everything for a while: music, acting, working apprentice special effects on B movies.
In 1990, I was playing music fulltime and got a girl pregnant. I thought I would need health insurance and started to look for ‘normal’ work. I lied on an application to a major TV syndicator. They hired me as traffic supervisor. Two weeks later they fired my boss and made me traffic manager. Soon, I ran traffic, mass duplication, vault and fulfillment services for a major TV company. It may not have been glamorous, but if you watched TV from 1990 to 1994 I was responsible for getting it to your TV set.
2. How did you become homeless?
My homelessness resulted from a series of bad decisions and severe drug abuse over a 20-year period. I was always a very high-functioning drug addict. I didn’t lose my job because I was on drugs; I lost it because I refused to obey an order to fire a Mexican to cover a mistake made by a a senior executive.
They fired one of my team members anyway. I screamed about it and the madness sent my drug abuse into overdrive and that cost me my job. I went back to old habits and started hanging out with some very bad people.
I lost it mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
I lived on or near Hollywood Boulevard off and on for about a year. I would go into a homeless shelter and kicked out. I was brought down to the point of no support, and no security.
It’s very hard to explain what homelessness is like. Living on the streets is hopeless and horrible. You beat yourself up with, “how did I get here” and “how am I going to get out of here” questions.
Visiting my homeless memories are not easy for me. I remember, in 1995, sitting by what was then a tee-shirt shop next to Grumman’s Chinese Theatre. My pet
6-foot-long iguana, "D.O.G." was sitting on my shoulder. My head was buried in my hands. I was lost in thoughts of my situation.
Then, a busload of Asian tourists unloaded and a group of them surrounded me. One asked, “can I take a picture of your Iguana?”
“Sure”, I said “for a dollar.” Everyone started handing me dollar bills. It was at that moment that I started to sell photos of D.O.G. and became “The Lizard Man Of Hollywood Boulevard.”
There's irony. Grumman's Chinese Theater became Kodak Theater. Fifteen years ago I survived by panhandling in front of it. In 2009, thanks to Jeff Pulver, I presented from the stage at The 140 Characters Conference because of my Twitter experience.
3. Tell me your happiest personal story from you homeless days. Tell me your saddest.There are no happy stories.
There are memories that I now laugh at, but I don’t consider them happy. Here is a post I wrote for Change.org about my first homeless night. After walking all day to find a safe place to sleep, I finally lay down in a park only for the sprinklers to go off.
Horrible then – funny now!
4. When, how and why did you decide to not be homeless?
No one decides to be homeless.
I mean, people do dumb things that often have negative consequences. But ‘Recycling Engineer’ is never an option on career day.
I can tell you right now looking at it from both sides the system is broken. I completely understand why some people give up trying. You keep hitting wall after wall trying to make your life better and eventually it wears you down.
It’s called learned helplessness.
After everything I have been through I cannot honestly tell you why or how I made it. But I did.
What I can tell you is that I didn’t do it alone. Along that way when I was at my lowest someone was there to give a hand. We must never give up on people. Ever. I was one of the worst of the worst, yet I changed.
I'm proof that anyone can change and have a better life.
5. Having been through such an experience, you elected to then spend your life working with and for the homeless. Why?
Oh please know I didn’t pick this life. Several people have blogged about me being a hero and I cringe – I’m really not that nice - I’m not.
I just could no longer walk by people and do nothing. And that didn’t just happen overnight, either. In a way, I had heart surgery and I’ll never be the same.
I November 2007, I was working in St. Louis and earning in the six figures when I lost my job. I aggressively searched for nine months, paying my mortgage and food with my credit cards.
Executive jobs were still being cut and low end employers like McDonalds wouldn't hire me after seeing my last income.
I crashed hard. I remember applying for food stamps. Walking into the building crushed me like it did when I was homeless applying for government assistance.
I was about done when I lucked into a job back in Los Angeles. I grabbed a ghetto apartment to save money since because I had all the St. Louis debt to deal with. Three months later I was one of 50 people to get laid off. It devastated me.
I felt like I had when I had been homeless 15 years earlier, maybe worse since I'd been sober all these years.
November of 2008 I started Invisiblepeople.tv.
It wasn’t this long thought-out process, maybe because the basic concept had been in me for years. As a nonprofit television producer I was tired of spinning homeless stories. And I had wrestled around the idea of doing a very ‘raw’ project.
Since I had nothing but a laptop, a camera and an iPhone, not even editing equipment. If I had any money, I would love to edit Invisible people.
Last winter I took a temp job supporting a homeless shelter. Along with making new friends while taping InvisiblePeople.tv my life changed.
A year ago my plan was to move back to LA for a cushy marketing job, start a new band, find a hot wife and vacation in Hawaii. Today, my financial crisis in many ways is worse, but my heart has been changed.
I sometimes dream about getting a normal job, but I know deep down I’d hate it.
In homeless services outreach you never know who you are going to meet. I was called to a park in Pasadena to assist a family. I loaded the father, mother and two babies into the van driving them to our facility. After we arrived the father was helping me unload the baby stroller from the back of the van.
Without saying anything he pointed to a rock. I thought he was helping me clean out the back of the van so I grabbed it to throw it away. He stopped me, took the rock out of my hand and handed it to his daughter. They are homeless. They live in a park. The only toy he could give his child is a smooth rock.
My heart was wrecked and I have never been the same since.
6. Malcolm Gladwell has written that most homeless people are that way for a very short period of time and that the problems of violence, property damage and emergency room costs that disturb so many people are caused by an extremely small number of people. What is your view on that?
I love what [San Francisco mayor] Gavin Newsom said, “We don’t have a homeless problem. We have a housing problem.”
You are referring to Million Dollar Murray a likeable homeless guy who cost public services over a million dollars, before he died on the street in a drunken stupor.
In Denver it costs $40k to keep someone on the streets and $14k to house them. To the taxpayer that’s a yearly savings of $26k per homeless individual being helped.
This is part of the growing Housing First movement, which I support.
Although controversial, it saves lives and saves money
But just providing housing is not enough.
The issue is what happens when you house people who are still on drugs or are mentally ill. Consider this: how do you stay sober when you are crapping behind a dumpster in a McDonalds parking lot?
It’s nearly impossible to stay sober on the streets. Point blank - unless a person has dignity they are not going to change. Give a person shelter--then work on the ‘issues’
We cannot just throw a chronic homeless person into housing and leave them alone. \ People need tangible social interaction.
7. Let's talk social media. When and how did it catch your attention? Tell me how you got started.
When I was job hunting from St. Louis, for the job that brought me back to Los Angeles. My prospective new boss tweeted, and was tweeting about the interview process, so of course, I looked, and looked, and looked! I started my account.
Being a TV producer by trade, I started a Twitter experiment. Driving from St. Louis back to Los Angeles, I told the story and used a few tricks to engage people. People started to email me, “where you going?”
The light bulb started to glow and I saw Twitter's value as a storytelling tool. Good marketing is simply telling a good story.
When I started Invisiblepeople.tv,I used Twitter to market it for not great strategic reason. I did it because Twitter is free and that fit my budget.
I’m your typical front page USA Today recession story. I’ve lost everything. Layoff, after layoff, after layoff, house lost to foreclosure. I did not, and still do not, have an operating budget. I use what I can afford and will give me real-time storytelling ability.
8. What is one of your InvisiblePeople that moved you the most?
I walked under a bridge in Atlanta and met Angela. She’s dying under that bridge, and the best I could do is give her a sandwich. Food is not enough. We need to support people who need help with housing, jobs and health services. Sure, maybe your support level is making a sandwich. Well then, make a bunch and take them to your local homeless shelter so they can save on their food budget for housing, jobs and health services.
if you wonder how Beth may have ended up under that bridge maybe this will help
9. How have your social media experiences helped homeless people in general and in specific.
I have an agenda. I am after your perceptions. Thing is a perception is a hard thing to measure, yet every now and then I get a glimpse. One day I was getting crazy traffic and clicked on the link that took me to America’s Next Top Model. You don’t have to be a genius to know models and homeless don’t mix. I scrolled down to find a comment left by a girl saying after visiting Invisiblepeople.tv she no longer thinks homeless are bums
Social media has been everything. I mean, I would not be typing this today if it was not for the people I met via social media that helped me. From the road trip to putting food in my fridge, social media changed my life. I am very grateful to everyone.
Now let’s get real. I was an unemployed guy who lost everything. With only a laptop and a cell phone I got the word ‘homeless’ to trend on twitter. Michael Jackson trends, iPhone trends – not HOMELESS – that’s huge! Even better, probably the coolest thing that has ever happened in homeless cause marketing may be Ford mirroring my content
I search twitter for the word ‘homeless’. Sometimes I get people being ignorant and I educate, and sometimes I find others helping homeless people. Probably the most interesting is this story.
Those are only a few of many examples of how I changed the general public’s view on homelessness.
This last summer’s road trip I was told about 50 homeless kids that didn’t have shoes so they could not go to school. One hour later they all had new shoes. Because I had the courage to do something different and with the help of people on social media housing and food programs have been started. That’s really amazing for a guy who has nothing but twitter to make things happen.
12. Can you tell me a single story that illustrates what social media has done for the homeless?
This may be the best single story.