On July 5th 2012, Doorway was delighted to be visited by Mark Horvath, from Los Angeles, California, USA. Mark, known on Twitter as @hardlynormal, was one of Doorway’s main inspirations in becoming involved in social media and the creation of this blog site. Through our involvement in Twitter, we have forged links with other organisations working with the homeless, and also with people both previously and currently homeless, so we have a lot to thank him for. He himself knows about both ‘success’ in our society’s terms, and about ‘failure’ and homelessness. In the 1990s, one year he was a successful TV producer in LA, the next he was living on the streets. He tells more of this in the interview below.
In 2008, Mark started travelling and filming the stories of homeless people around the USA, as he felt their stories, in their words, needed to be heard. Thus was born InvisiblePeople.tv, and he also started tweeting out the stories he heard. The following for his output grew and grew, and spanned the continents. He also launched We AreVisible.com, whose mission is to give people struggling with poverty and homelessness the tools they need to get online and have a voice. The site teaches them how to sign up for email, open a Twitter account, join Facebook, create a blog and, in general, take advantage of the benefits of online social media. Despite the fact that he now works as an outreach worker with the homeless in LA, he still tirelessly travels, on scanty funds and using his vacation time, to enable people’s tales to be told.
There was talk almost 2 years ago of Mark coming to the UK, but lack of finances blocked this until this year, when British Airways kindly donated flights. Doorway was immensely honoured to be the only visit Mark made outside London, and it was a real red letter day, as Richard Burdett, editor of The Pavement magazine, visited the drop-in session on the same Thursday afternoon. After the session, he recorded interviews with Richard, and with Doorway’s CEO, Lisa:
That evening, I turned the tables on Mark, to hear his voice…..
Mark, you’ve come over from the States to have a look at some of the homelessness services in England. Could you just give us a quick snapshot of what you do back in the States and how you got into this sort of thing in the first place?
First off, I want to say thank you. The English people have been just wonderful, and this is going to be an experience that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. You’re all so kind and gracious, so I want to thank you. And opening up – a lot of times non-profits have a closed culture, and today, visiting Doorway Project, it was just amazing. Lisa and you and all the staff just welcomed me. I felt ‘part of’ instead of ‘a visitor’, and that’s very unique.
You’re most welcome. And we certainly aim at Doorway for it to be that sort of, almost like family, atmosphere, and everybody’s welcome, as long as they’re coming in the right spirit. It’s been a particular pleasure for us to have you with us, because, particularly in terms of social media, you’ve been a great inspiration to Lisa and myself. We talked before of you coming over, and it sounded possibly pie-in-the-sky, but it’s happened, which is marvellous.
To answer your question directly; many, many, many years ago, I had a great job in the television industry, but I also had a very serious drug and alcohol addiction. So I ended up homeless on Hollywood Boulevard. And I can look at that as a point in my life that was really horrible, but it’s where I changed. And why I bring that up today is that today I met a couple of people that really reminded me of why we can’t give up. Because there were guys today at the centre, during the session, that had given up hope. And I remember being like that. I remember not knowing where my meal was going to come from, being addicted to drugs, not knowing how to get that, and it was a very dark time. But I did persevere, and I did move forward, I did a little bit every day. It took about eight years, and I rebuilt my life, back to a nice house, and a new car, and a great job, and then the economy tanked. And I lost everything. I lost the job, another job, another job, and I lost my house. So, something I’ve always wanted to do – I’ve run ‘Invisible People’, or the concept of what I do, past several bosses, and they never would let me. And here I was, broke, lost my house, no job, and… why not? Got to take a risk. But, there’s also part of it was, there’s magic in helping people. If you’re going through a problem, whether you’ve got a flat tyre, or your wife left you, or you’ve got health issues, get out of yourself and go help somebody. So I remembered that.
So I went out, and I registered a domain name, ‘InvisiblePeople.tv’ for 45 bucks, and built a little WordPress blog. I used YouTube, and I had a little camera, and I went out and started empowering homeless people to tell their own story. I almost didn’t do it, because at the time, and I’m very honest about this, I wish I could say it was my brilliance, but it was luck, or destiny – I couldn’t edit the video. Now, I’m a television producer, an award-winning television producer, so to me, video has B-roll, and music, and graphics, and it’s pretty! Well, I couldn’t, so I almost didn’t do it. For a week I was looking at the problems instead of solutions. I just kept on looking at problems – “Oh, I can’t do this, I don’t have time”. And then I went “you know what? I’m just going to put it up – I’m just going to make the solution”. And the miracle was that authenticity has replaced production values.
“in homeless services, we’re not listening to the people we serve”
So, why ‘Invisible People’ works is we – when I say ‘we’, I mean homeless services and government – we have educated the people on homelessness through our marketing materials. And we presented trophies – we say ‘”the Salvation Army’s done it” or “this place has done it” or “that place has done it”, and they’re usually spun for fund-raising. Now I’m not saying that’s bad, you’ve got to raise money, but the general public has said “Oh my gosh, they’re doing it – we don’t have to”. So I always knew we had to tell the story, the real story, of people on the streets, and how I know this is that I actually produced my story, and it wasn’t my story, but it was really to raise money, so I always knew that stories weren’t really authentic. So another reason is, I knew we don’t need to listen to a politician, we don’t need to listen to a professor, we don’t need to listen to some expert on homelessness except for the people who are experiencing homelessness – they’re the expert. One of the things that I learned today is that you guys did a survey, and you went and asked – I think you ran it, you personally went and asked all your guests about a topic, you were interviewing the homeless people.
It was a hot topic, the one of white cider drinking and strong lager drinking, and we decided on the day, let’s just do it, let’s run with it, and whoever walks through the door, we will ask.
And we need more of that – that’s the power of ‘Invisible People’.
And what I would say was marvellous, and everybody had the chance to say “no, I don’t want anything to do with this” – actually, the uptake was incredible. I think only about 3 people out of 45, 46 who came in that day didn’t have anything to do with it, and that was mostly because I didn’t have time to speak to them all. I think only one actually declined out of the whole lot. And that’s partly because they trust us. For me it meant it was a real survey of real people at that time. Because you can be an expert in something of a certain time, but these people are experts on what’s on the streets now, today.
Exactly. Even though I was homeless 16 years ago, and I’ve travelled all over, several countries, and all kinds of cities, I’m not an expert on homelessness, because I’m not homeless. I put it like this – we live in a world where a 22 year-old lady changed Bank of America, which is a big bank in America. They wanted to raise fees, and she used social media, and Bank of America wasn’t able to raise their fees. And we live in that world. Because if you run a restaurant, you own a business, and you don’t listen to your customers, you go out of business. But in homeless services, we’re not listening to the people we serve. No homeless person ever said “Put me in a room with a hundred other homeless men, give me one bathroom with two stalls, kick me out in the morning, and that’s going to cure my mental illness and drug addiction. Please do that for me. Put me in a place where I don’t have dignity, where I don’t feel comfortable, where I don’t feel safe, and I’m going to heal all the problems that caused my homelessness”. No! So, I really believe the system’s broken.
Jenny Edwards said something so profound to me last night. She said “I know we can end homelessness because the system is broken, and the gears are going the wrong way. We just need to change the gears so they go the right way”. And we have to break through the bureaucracy, the non-communication, all the politics, the egos. And to me, the way it’s going to happen the fastest and the best is when we start treating out homeless friends as consumers, as guests, real guests – “How was your day? How did we serve you? How was the meal? How can we make it better?”
It’s something we try to do at Doorway, and it’s one of the reasons that people are called guests, not service-users, not clients, because they are guests, and we do care, actually, that they like the meal – it’s not a question of saying “look, it’s free, what are you complaining about?” Yes, you’re quite right, we need to be listening to people, we need to keep listening to people.
There’s a French-Canadian doctor, Gabor Maté, an addiction expert, I heard him speak recently, and he said that the theory is that people don’t change until they hit bottom, but he says that’s not the truth – people change when they get a taste of victory. And that victory is when somebody looks at them as an equal. And not as a bum, as a rough sleeper, as a homeless person. And that’s what I saw at Doorway Project today, and I’m completely candid and honest that I’ve not seen this in places. I was out front for a while, we’re talking to people at the entry, and then I finally walk in – I didn’t know who was homeless, or who was sleeping rough, and who were staff and who were volunteers. Because usually when you walk into a day centre, there’s homeless people over in a corner, and they’re on a couch sleeping, and there’s somebody watching TV, maybe somebody playing a video game, somebody doing some coffee – staff’s running around trying to put out all the fires. You guys were all sitting at tables, having a conversation, and it was mixed, it wasn’t like a group of homeless and a group of staff, you were all together. And that was amazing, that was gorgeous.
And I think that’s possibly one of the reasons – and I hate to tempt fate by saying this – that we don’t have a lot of trouble or fights, because people value the safe space, they value the family feel, and they would nip it in the bud themselves, by and large, because they just want it to be a good environment for all of us. We try so hard that there isn’t any ‘them and us’ going on. Because we’re aware from different levels of experience, sometimes very personal experience, that, were we to think in terms of ‘them and us’, there isn’t really any difference between them and us. It’s just a few throws of life’s dice. And that could have been us there, and them volunteering.
Nobody’s going to get better, get out of their situation…….. because this is one thing I think society misses, the general public, they stereotype – they think homelessness is the problem. And yes, it’s a problem, it costs taxpayers money, you don’t want to trip over them when you’re walking down the street and all this, yes. But it’s what caused that – it’s the drug addiction…. and you can’t look at the drugs, you’ve got to look at the pain of people. The one kid today was talking about how he was two years old and in a foster home – a gazillion foster homes, thrown down the stairs at two years old, and just abused and abused. So he’s trying to forget his upbringing, and you’re not going to correct that by putting somebody in jail, putting them in some strange hostel. You’re only going to correct that by giving them dignity.
Absolutely. And I talked to somebody today who is sort of disappointed that he’s kicked his opiate habit and life isn’t magically better yet. Because it’s an important part, it’s a crucial part, but it’s not all of it. And that’s the thing – it’s a symptom. I’m a doctor. If somebody comes along to me with a headache, and I just give them painkillers, I’m not doing them any favours. I have to find out why they have a headache. I need to find out the cause of the headache, or I’m just masking the problem.
“it was mixed, it wasn’t like a group of homeless and a group of staff, you were all together, and that was amazing, that was gorgeous”
The first thing I have to say, and you kind of prophesied it, is that I’ve only been here now for four days, and I could probably be here ten years and still not know. And I’ve only seen a small snapshot. But one thing – all the people I’ve met on the street – and I’ve walked the Strand in London, by myself, several nights, in the rain. Because often when I meet with homeless services, they show me what they want me to see. You know, their lines. And it’s what they’re seeing, I’m not saying they’re bad. So I want to be on the streets myself. I was kind of shocked at how nice everybody was. I was also kind of shocked how well dressed. So the difference is like if I was walking down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, homeless people are really not dressed as well. And the health also. And that might be because of health care – because in America we don’t have health care. We don’t. Unless you’ve got good money. And I just noticed this. I travel sometimes in Canada with an outreach nurse, and I just was in New York City with her, and that was her first observation, was how the health of American homeless people was so bad, and that’s because of the health care. So I did notice that. But I didn’t notice a whole lot of differences. What I did notice was the similarities. And the similarities were very similar in both homelessness and the amount of bureaucracy and politics and lack of communication between the government and service providers. Obviously different cultures, different judicial systems, different governments and everything – but the bureaucracy part, the part that’s keeping people on the streets and needs to be fixed, is almost identical.
So hopefully, if we can march forward together and change things, we can learn from each other as we do so.
Well, that’s the thing, that the non-profits, the governments, the faith-based organisations, have to forget their differences and work together. In the States we call it ‘gaps in the safety net’, and I guess you guys have similar things that people fall through, And we need to stop those gaps, and one of the ways …..you know, there’s plenty of services, there’s plenty of service organisations, there’s help out there, so why aren’t people going into hospitals, why aren’t people using it…because it’s a broken system, and we need to be able to communicate with each other, I mean non-profits and governments, and work together. We all have great resources that work for what we do, and maybe some bad stuff. Let’s pool all the good stuff, then we’re all going to get along… we’re never all going to sit in a room and sing Kumbaya, we’re not, let’s be real, but let’s forget all the crap and just start getting these people off the streets, because it not only saves lives, it saves taxpayer money.
Great stuff, Mark, and I’ll even forgive you for making me work out how to spell Kumbaya when I write this up. Would you like just to give us the link for your site?
The best way to follow me is real time on Twitter, it’s @hardlynormal. I get a little chatty, so jump on over to Invisible People, which I call Hardly Normal Lite, which is only one or two blasts a day. The main site is invisiblepeople.tv, and as of now, there’s five stories from the UK, and one of them, actually, all of them have engaged people in a positive conversation about the welfare system here in the UK – it’s been totally amazing. I also have hardlynormal.com, which is my own personal rants, which focuses primarily on homelessness.
Mark, thank you very much indeed.
Mark’s interviews with Richard and Lisa filmed at Doorway (the cameraman apologises for scratching his nose and making the picture wobble……..):
Hardly Normal post link here
Hardly Normal post link here