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4 questions with this year’s Home For Good Champion of the Year, Mark Horvath!

This year, Mark Horvath was recognized as the Home For Good Champion of the Year! Mark has taken his own experiences of homelessness, as well as his passion for marketing, and transformed that into a powerful movement called Invisible People, where he gives voice to homeless people throughout the country.  Mark also taught us everything we know about social media!

Mark Horvath poses for a picture with United Way’s Christine Marge, Executive Director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Barbara Poppe and Task Force Co-Chairs Renee Fraser and Jerry Neuman.

1.      Why did you decide to join the fight against homelessness?

Decide? Like I even had a choice! Seventeen years ago I had a very good job in the television industry. Sixteen years ago I became homeless, living on Hollywood Boulevard.  I rebuilt my life to a point where I had a 3-bedroom house, pool in the backyard, new SUV in the garage and a 780 credit score, then in 2007 the economy took a nosedive.  Like many Americans today, I found myself unemployed, living off my credit cards, and hoping for the best.  The best never came, but several layoffs – along with foreclosure on my house- did.

For over a decade, I produced nonprofit response television and worked in nonprofit marketing.  We often produced stories of homelessness and poverty, but they were always “spun,” usually to raise money.  We were not being dishonest.  We just used the power of “storytelling” to help trigger an emotional response so people would give money.

I eventually became very frustrated that the real homeless story was not being told.  Nonprofits and faith-based organizations always paint a picture that has a happy ending.  They have to do this, and raising money to fight homelessness is not a bad thing.  But stories with a nice tidy ending can cause people to detach and think, “Look what they did. They are solving homelessness. We don’t have to”

By November of 2008, I found myself once again laid off.  This last job had relocated me back to Los Angeles, then let me go after three months.  I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and, to be honest, I was scared of once again living on the streets of Hollywood.  I could see homelessness all around me, but I couldn’t bear to look.  I was turning away because I felt their pain.

Don’t waste a good crisis.  It’s a simple concept and it’s how InvisiblePeople.tv started.  For the most part I had lost everything but some furniture, my car, a box of photos, laptop, small camera, and my iPhone.  My laptop could not cut video because it had a 5400 drive.

That almost stopped me from starting.  I mean, I come from old school broadcasting.  Videos need to have a music bed, nice graphics, b-roll, and be well-produced.  But after looking at what I didn’t have and all the problems that were stopping me, I decided to just use what I had.

I registered a domain, paid for some server space, changed the header on a WordPress theme, grabbed my camera, and started to interview people.

I honestly didn’t think anyone would even view the videos.  I was really doing it to release something that was deep down inside me, and to be candid, to keep busy.  It was a really dark time and Invisible People gave me a purpose.

The very first road trip was to Sacramento, California.  Oprah did a story on the tent city there, which started a media frenzy.

Sacramento was kind of forced to take action and the whole thing was a mess. No one was allowing the homeless to tell their own stories.  I knew I had to visit, but I was out of time and money.  I remember sitting on my couch with just $300 to my name and rent was due.  The smart move was to stay in LA and continue to look for work.  By now I had been unemployed for the better part of two years. Then I figured, what the heck!  I wasn’t going to find work anyway, so why not take the risk!

I’ll never forget going into the first tent city.  It was 400 yards in a wooded area where no help could easily arrive if I found myself in trouble.  I questioned my sanity walking in there with a camera and a bag of socks.  One smart thing I did was blast what I was doing all over social media so people could feel like they were right there with me.  That day my life changed.  People started to tweet me encouragement and all kinds of support.  The Invisible People road trip was born.

Now I have traveled to over 60 cities in the United States and Canada and toured hundreds of homeless services. I was honored to keynote the Geneva Forum of Social Change in Switzerland last year. I spoke at the State Department and most of all the major conferences like South By Southwest, 140 Conference, Blogworld and more. YouTube gave Invisible People unprecedented exposure allowing me to curate YouTube’s homepage for a day. Just last year the Canadian Government asked me to visit and help them fight homelessness. The year before that, the State of Utah invited me to help. This week I am off to help the City of San Francisco and HUD.

But the really cool stuff that keeps me going is the 50 homeless kids in Baton Rouge that didn’t have shoes until an hour after my visit. In Northwest Arkansas a farmer donated 40 acres of land that is being used to feed 150 low-income families a week. In Canada a homeless man dying of cancer was reunited with his family because of one of my videos. And literally, housing programs have started because of Invisible People.

I honestly didn’t decide to do any of this, and now that so much impact has happened, how can I do anything else?

2.      Why is social media a powerful tool to help end homelessness?

The biggest shift we’ll soon see is social media will force homeless services to view our clients as customers and all control will go to them. Homeless services is broken. Anyone that doesn’t see that has their head in guacamole. But we keep playing the same games over and over. In all other aspects of business social media has given all the power to the consumer. Don’t believe me? Molly Katchpole, a 22-year-old nanny, was directly responsible for leading a revolt preventing Bank of America from increasing fees! Soon, all our homeless friends will have this power, and homeless services as we know it will be forced to change. Too me that’s a very good thing.

I also believe social media can be used for virtual case management and peer to peer support. Much of my work in the coming years will be creating ways tech can be used to help our homeless friends help each other.

Homeless services is so behind on technology. HMIS systems are nearly impossible to navigate when data entry could be as easy as updating a Facebook profile. Anyone anywhere in the world with internet access can find an empty hotel room anywhere in the world, yet a homeless family has to go through the maddening process of guessing availability and being processed for intakes just to be put on a waiting list!  By adopting technology we could be saving lives and saving money.

3.      When and why did you decide to get involved with Home For Good?

As I travel, I have found that the communities that are truly working together are the ones having the most impact. I support all initiatives that involve the faith based community, the business community, governments and nonprofits. Poverty and homelessness are too big for any one organization to fight. I know we won’t always get along. But we MUST forget our differences and share our resources to help fight homelessness. It’s the only way! Our homeless neighbors are dying. If you are connected to an organization that has not signed up for Home For Good WAKE UP! Let go of your egos and let’s work as a united team to end homelessness in Los Angeles!

4.      Rumor has it that you initially refused to sign up for Twitter.  Can you explain the over 70K tweets on your personal account @hardlynormal?

Explain @hardlynormal? You know not what you ask!

In 2003, I accepted a job in Ohio and drove by myself from Los Angeles to Ohio. I said I would never drive cross-country ever again. I also said I would never twitter. By 2007 I was living in St. Louis and found myself unemployed. I was interviewing for a job in Los Angeles.

My prospective new boss twittered, and was twittering about the interview process, so of course I looked, and looked, and looked!  I didn’t want him to know I was looking so I used an old stage name from when I played drums for a living. He ended up hiring me and I had to relocate back to LA.

Being a TV producer by trade, I started a twitter experiment. As I drove to Los Angeles, I told the story to engage people and bring them vicariously for the ride. To my shock it worked. People started to email me, “where you going?” The light bulb started to glow and I saw the worth of twitter as a storytelling tool. Good marketing is simply telling a good story.

When I started Invisible People, I never ever said, “I’m going to use social media because….” I used twitter because – IT’S FREE!

You can never say never! Since 2003 when I first said I would not drive long distance I have completed three national road trips. Last year I drove from Los Angeles to 24 cities in Canada and back.  Yes, I said I would never Twitter, and yes, I was the first cause to ever speak at Twitter Inc.

Now, I am in awe of how 140 characters can have such impact on a life.

There is something magical and serendipitous about twitter. From finding beds when moving 3 homeless women into housing or raising the money to fly a homeless family back to their family in Atlanta, twitter is my primary tool to fight homelessness.

For more information on Invisible People visit invisiblepeople.tv

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