Advocate for the Invisible

Mark Horvath, once homeless himself, is now one of the nation's top homeless advocates. How one man took his struggles and turned them into an opportunity to rescue "invisible people"—those society often overlooks.

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It’s an odd scene at Wal-Mart: A homeless woman and her 9-year-old son; Pastor Matthew Barnett of Angelus Temple and the Los Angeles Dream Center; and Mark Horvath, filming the entire scene on his iPhone and broadcasting it live to the Internet.

The woman had lost her job and lived in a van until it was towed. She turned to a shelter for help, so case manager Mark Horvath drove the mother and son to a hotel where they could be housed temporarily. All their possessions were in the towed van. They had nothing—not even a change of clothes. So Mark took a detour to Wal-Mart. Along the way he sent a message asking for help to the more than 6,000 people who follow him on Twitter. Within minutes Matthew Barnett was on his way.

The cashier scans toiletries, clothes and clean underwear, as well as a surprise Christmas present: a Nintendo DS. The boy’s eyes light up, and he starts bouncing around. Matthew starts laughing. The mother is speechless. Mark is still filming, broadcasting to the world.

This is a normal day for Mark, a man who is anything but normal. He runs InvisiblePeople.tv, a website that uses unedited, candid videos to tell the stories of homeless people. He has also harnessed social media to spread these stories far and wide.

Mark has been featured by the L.A. Times and CNN. The Huffington Post named him one of 11 Twitter activists you should be following. His popularity among the tech community has resulted in speaking gigs at a number of conferences, including Blog World, GnomeDex, 140 Character Conference and this spring’s SXSW.

Far from a humanitarian rock star, Mark is formerly homeless himself. His life story is a rollercoaster. He dealt drugs as a 14 year old, worked in the TV industry and drove a Mercedes by 1994. But he ended up on the streets for a year with nothing but a six-foot iguana to keep him company. Then he came to the Dream Center.

“Mark was one of the roughest guys we’ve ever seen,” says Matthew Barnett. “He carried that iguana everywhere—even into church.”

Mark put the streets behind him with help of the Dream Center. Or so he thought. In 2005 he earned six figures as the communications director of a megachurch in St. Louis—he even bought a house with a pool. But when the economy tanked, Mark lost his job and spent nine months unemployed.

He moved back to Los Angeles in summer 2008 to take a job at the central office of The Foursquare Church. But by October the recession had forced the denomination to lay off 60 people, including Mark.

Only seven weeks away from homelessness—again—and facing foreclosure on his St. Louis home, Mark launched InvisiblePeople.tv.

“I look at it as a blessing,” Mark says. “If I stayed at Foursquare I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today.”

Photo by Megan CMark Horvath in actionottrell.Today he’s back on the streets, but this time telling the stories of the homeless. He has shared nearly 100 videos, many captured during a road trip in 2009 when he drove a loaner from Ford packed with Hanes socks more than 11,000 miles across the country.

“There are a lot of people like Mark with so much talent [who are on the streets],” says Matthew Barnett. “If we could be the church that is finding those people and ministering to their potential, we could find so many great stories like this.”

Currently Mark works as a case manager for PATH Achieve Glendale, helping homeless families and individuals move from the streets to permanent housing. But the case manager position and donations to InvisiblePeople.tv barely pay the bills.

Yet he keeps at it.

“Mark continues his work because he must,” says Charles Lee, pastor of New Hope South Bay, a Foursquare church that supported Mark’s road trip. “God continues to cause him to do this, even during times when he would like to give up. I’ve seen Mark crash and get right back up to continue the work.”

Mark insists that he’s not called—he’s forced. “If you’re called you can hang up the phone,” Mark says. “I don’t have any choice.”

Mark is convinced that it takes that kind of commitment to reach people. “People change through a commitment of love. That’s why the Dream Center worked for me,” Mark says. That kind of commitment is why you’ll find Mark at a Wal-Mart at 9 p.m.

“You don’t work 10 hours a day in homeless services and just leave and go, OK, I’m done,” Mark says. “If you’re going to help a homeless single mom, you have to get dirty. … You have to make [people who are hurting] a priority.”

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By: Kevin D. Hendricks, a freelance writer that lives in St. Paul, Minn.

a freelance writer that lives in St. Paul, Minn.
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