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Homeless advocate brings his message to the masses through social media

At one point living on the streets himself, Mark Horvath is spreading the word about the faces of homelessness online by letting them do the talking.

July 19, 2009|Jessica Garrison

Mark Horvath, a documenter of homelessness who was once homeless himself, was touring a tent city in Sacramento when he raised his cellphone to take a photo of one man's ingenious shopping-cart storage system.

Suddenly, another man rushed at him, screaming, with a knife.

Horvath was terrified, he said, but not so scared that he stopped sending photos and text messages about what was happening.

"I am a little scared because people will protect their home and everyone is angry," read one, followed soon after by another: "One man . . . starts screaming at me. I walk away. Two guys follow me to my car. I'm scared."

Five hundred miles away in Los Angeles, Heather Meeker sat on the edge of her chair staring at her computer screen, anxious for Horvath's next update.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 21, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Homeless advocate: In some editions of Sunday's California section, an article about Mark Horvath's cross-country trip to document homelessness said the L.A. Mission gave money to Horvath's effort. It was the Union Rescue Mission that contributed.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, July 26, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Homeless advocate: In some editions of the July 19 California section, an article about Mark Horvath's cross-country trip to document homelessness said that the L.A. Mission gave money to Horvath's effort. It was the Union Rescue Mission that contributed.

Meeker is director of marketing and communications for the social media storytelling website Whrrl, which lets users create online storybooks using their own photos and captions.

She was afraid, she said, that Horvath was going to be attacked mid-message.

As it turned out, the encounter ended peacefully. It also led to a relationship between Horvath and Whrrl that has helped turn Horvath into one of the Internet's most outspoken homeless advocates.

In recent months, he's become a darling of the social media industry, followed on Twitter and sought after as a speaker at conferences.

Last week, with corporate sponsorship, he set off on a two-month nationwide tour of homeless encampments -- a grander version of what he has been doing over the past year.

In stories on Whrrl and videos he posts on his blog and on Twitter, Horvath lets homeless people talk -- raw and unscripted -- about their panhandling, lost children, drug addictions, sorrows and hopes. He punctuates their words with plenty of his own.

"I've often heard people who were never homeless themselves talk about what a lucrative job [panhandling] must be," he wrote this spring. "Please note: panhandling is not a good career move. Besides the humiliation, it's very dangerous and . . . the perks are not all that great . . . people spit on you."

Such frankness is unusual in a world in which many advocates are hypercareful about avoiding negative stereotypes.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that 2.5 million to 3.5 million people experience homelessness each year in the United States, including 600,000 families and 1.35 million children. Many live in motel rooms, cars or shelters, but tent cities have sprung up in growing numbers across the country.

Telling the stories of the homeless is personal for Horvath, who worked in television before hitting bottom as an alcoholic. He was homeless himself for several months in 1995. With his 6-foot-long pet iguana, he made money posing for tourists' pictures on Hollywood Boulevard.

He got clean with the help of a church, the Dream Center, and spent more than a decade working for various churches around the country helping them boost their media presence.

But last year, after he lost a job and then his home to foreclosure, he began to fear that once again he could wind up on the street. The prospect, he said, filled him with terror and hopelessness.

To keep the fear at bay, and because he is so full of energy that spending time with him can be both invigorating and exhausting, he threw himself into documenting homeless life and culture.

He now does so on a variety of platforms -- his blog, Twitter, Facebook.

On Wednesday, he set out in a Ford Flex on loan to him by the car company's head of digital media, full of socks to hand out along the way.

The first day was a typical frenzy of activity. He drove to Las Vegas and, despite the 116-degree heat, immediately sought out a homeless encampment.

Within hours, he had posted photos of a wasted-looking, shirtless man, whose vacant eyes and faraway expression echo the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange.

Those who follow Horvath -- about 2,900 of them on Twitter alone -- talk about the immediacy of his work, his way of forcing viewers to connect with the people he films.

Take an interview he did in May with a couple and their 15-month-old daughter:

With no introduction, Horvath asks: "Natasha, David and Tish, tell me, what's it like being a homeless family?"

On the video, David winces, as his wife looks at their daughter, smiling, squirming and playing with a plastic cup.

"It's rough," he says. "Every day is a struggle. . . . We do the best we can to stay upbeat."

A minute later his wife, whose face alternates between hope and defiance, interjects. "I get tired of, 'You people this,' " she says. "We're homeless. We're not less human."

Natalie Komuro, executive director of PATH Achieve, Glendale's largest homeless provider, said she has been struck by Horvath's ability to engage people "who have no contact with homeless people to actually see their story."

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