Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Interview and Downtown walking tour with Mark Horvath from invisiblepeople.tv

Continuing my three-day blogging blitz for CDI College's event tonight at 6:30 honoring Mark Horvath's work on homeless awareness/activism, I spent a couple hours today giving Mark a walking tour of downtown. Mark is a great conversationalist. With his 8 years of personal homelessness and struggles, his two @invisiblepeople tours across America, and now halfway through a Canadian tour, he has a lot of experience and knowledge to draw from.

Mark is a one-man show. He's his own crew, his own camera man, his own video editor, website updater, and his own tweeter-er, at his own account @hardlynormal as well as the @invisiblepeople account.

Meeting at Twist Cafe downtown, as a blogger, I didn't want to ask him the easy loft questions like "how'd you get started" and "why are you doing this" and these sorts of things. Decided to go right for the jugular, and described the situation in Winnipeg. The urban situation. The negative way in which the 740 000 or so people who don't live downtown view downtown. The irrational, strange fear that people have of panhandlers, poverty, and homelessness.

Mark took to the more conversational "interview" well and immediately took up the offer to talk more in depth about perception and perspective.

"If I have to look at homeless, I have to take responsibility. And if I have to take responsibility, that means I have to solve it."

Why take on all that work if you can just drive back to your suburban home and pretend you didn't see anything? Or continue silly just-get-a-job diatribes? Mark opined further on that.

"Urban living isn't for everybody. It isn't for a lot of people," referring to how living in an urban environment appeals to few. Most people, especially here, embrace the suburban home. People gravitate to areas where they are comfortable, where there are other people like themselves. "In any city, any downtown I'm in - I love being downtown, in urban places. Any downtown I'm in, the thing that jumps out to me the most, the first thing I look for, are the lofts. Like how cool would it be to live in the penthouse in that building?"

It sure is unusual to hear something like that around these parts. A small contingent of people aspire to or look forward to moving downtown. The hip, chic, young professional type crowd. What draws Mark to these areas? The mix and diversity of people who live there. That on the same block, live the person in the loft, the person in the apartment, the shop owner, and street people.

I told about what I think is the most fascinating place in Winnipeg: the Portage Place food court. The diversity, the mix. Then he said something no 'Pegger would ever say. "You tell me about this mall, and the kind of people that are there, and I want to go see it. That's a place I would feel comfortable."

Strange hearing an outsider's perspective eh? As I'm working on this piece, blogger colleague Rob Galston happens to be squatting at the same non-crappy-hotspot wifi cafe I am, and figures at best, 30%, maybe 35% of Winnipeggers might say they feel comfortable at the Portage Place food court.

So away we went. As we passed a group of African immigrants in the food court, he quickly identified them as Sudanese, the reason he was able to do so is because before he was homeless, he filmed in Sudan during a period when he wasn't even legally allowed to be there for political reasons between the Sudan-American governments (as I said, his depth of experience has given him a lot of knowledge and perspective on all walks of life). I explained the history behind the creation of the mall, among other factoids about downtown. From there we ventured to Central park.

As we stood in Central Park, I remarked how many people I know including my mother, would be concerned for me if they knew where I was standing at the moment. Mark was perplexed. Children were in the fanciest splash pad in the city, and not 30 metres away was a homeless man sleeping on a bench.

We walked down to the Exchange, to show him the area of downtown I was most familiar with. Sure enough we ran into some of the homeless regulars I recognized. Mark walks right up and introduces himself, asks if they would like to share their story on video. A native man showed us his heavily bruised collar bone and shoulder, telling us that he had panhandled all day yesterday, and was only able to buy a single king can. He was jumped and beaten for it.

All declined to share their stories on video, but that didn't stop Mark's generosity. To every homeless person he offers a new pair of socks, which are never turned down.

On the way back to the Delta, Mark explained that these are the - visible - street people. They can be found in any city, in any urban area. This is the face of homelessness that people recognize, but it isn't necessarily what he's searching for. He tours to find the homeless mothers trying to raise a family, homeless in the LGBT community, the - invisible - homeless population.

But his documentation and social media-driven awareness and activism project doesn't necessarily leave the visible out. Everyone is given the offer to share their story, and a clean pair of socks.

Before parting our downtown tour for his next appointment, Mark said that he wishes he could walk around all downtowns, in all cities, but rarely gets the chance to. He shared with me one more piece of information Winnipeggers should all be aware of. That all across Canada, through the rest of the West, he has heard rumours and grumblings about coming here.

Apparently we aren't just known as the murder capital or the car theft capital of Canada, but we also have a reputation for having a dangerous downtown where you are likely to get mugged. But on his walk with me to Central Park, down Ellice, to the Exchange, up Fort back to Graham avenue and to the Delta, he didn't see anything that concerned him or made him think that our downtown is any different from any other average downtown, despite all the warnings given to him.

CDI College has been streaming videos from Mark's invisiblepeople.tv site for the last couple days. Executive Director of the college Tahl East, says response has been amazing, that students and passers by through the lobby stop to watch and end up glued to the screen.

By watching and listening to the stories, one at a time, Mark Horvath is helping to raise awareness about homelessness and poverty. Giving these people a voice and the opportunity to be heard and listened to, is what it is all about.

And in that spirit, CDI College has created a new scholarship honouring Mark's humanitarian efforts. The "We Are Visible" scholarship will be announced tonight, at CDI College at Main and Graham, in the parking lot at 6:30pm.

Everyone is welcome. Come down and listen to Mark's presentation.

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