Ten years ago, Mark Horvath, an advocate for the homeless, would spend his nights hanging around a few bowling alleys in the Los Angeles area. He'd wait for the moment when the employees would toss out all the used and unwanted socks from the day's bowlers. Why let all those pairs of once-worn socks go to waste? Horvath would collect as many as he was able, wash them, and then hand out the clean socks to the homeless.
Something as simple and basic as a sock can make all the difference to a person living on the street. Horvath himself can relate, having experienced homelessness twice in his lifetime. Those very life experiences eventually inspired him to create the nonprofit organization Invisible People.
After hearing about Horvath's online advocacy efforts and his resourcefulness in working with local bowling alleys, the clothing company Hanes saw the potential for a partnership.
Since 2009, Hanes and Invisible People have worked together to distribute more than three million pairs of socks to those in need across the nation.
"If it weren't for the coronavirus, I would be driving around the country right now celebrating ten years of the Hanes and Invisible People partnership on a road trip handing out socks," Horvath tells New Times from his home in New York.
Now, owing to the pandemic, instead of socks, Hanes and Invisible People are donating one million cloth facemasks to hundreds of shelters nationwide.
A total of 14,000 masks were donated in Florida, distributed predominantly in South Florida. Local shelters that have received masks include Miami Rescue Mission, Covenant House Florida in Fort Lauderdale, and Family Promise of South Palm Beach County in Delray Beach.
In Miami-Dade County, masks are a requirement for everyone — whether you're entering a store or boarding a bus. The homeless community doesn't have the resources the general public has in acquiring a facemask to be allowed into places, Horvath says.
"That's why it's just amazing that these masks are being distributed through service providers to homeless people in some hard-hit areas," he adds.
Local shelters are more important than ever because they're providing an essential service that not only helps the homeless individual but the community at large.
"If the coronavirus spreads through the homeless community, it'll be disastrous for all of us," Horvath warns. "Homeless people don't have the use of public bathrooms anymore. [If you're living on the streets], how do you wash your hands for safety from the coronavirus? How do you even get water?"
Horvath says the three most important things a person can do to help the homeless population are to educate themselves, contact their government leaders, and support their local shelters.
"The public's inability, our government's inability, and the politician's inability to relate to homelessness is our biggest obstacle to ending it," he adds.
The general public tends to blame homelessness on the homeless, abetted by preconceived notions that homeless people are lazy, addicted to drugs, or deserving of their circumstances owing to bad choices.
But in reality, the primary cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing.
Above all, Horvath says, "We need to educate ourselves to the realities of homelessness and the solutions to end it."
Horvath first experienced homelessness in 1995 after losing his job in the television industry and battling an addiction to drugs and alcohol. He was able to get help, get work, and get better. But in 2008 when the economy suffered a major blow and the subsequent recession left millions out of work, Horvath once again found himself out of work and living on the street.
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Even after he rebuilt his life, Horvath found himself spending a lot of time on the street. But this time he was holding a camera in one hand and focusing the lens on his former dwellings.
"I'd love to say that I set out to change the world," Horvath says. "But I just wanted to give myself purpose and a reason to get up in the morning. So I grabbed a camera and I started interviewing homeless people."
His passion project has since evolved into a national nonprofit that provides invaluable resources and offers unique ways to get involved. The organization has initiated housing and meal-distribution programs, and Horvath has traveled to more than 300 cities to spread his message.