SCOTT SIMON, host:
Mark Horvath is a former Hollywood insider, who's also been a drug addict, con artist and for a brief period homeless. He says hes left that life behind and these days hes drawing on his past to inspire his Web site invisiblepeople.tv. The site is a collection of YouTube-length video profiles of homeless people that hes met across the country.
As KQEDs Rob Schmitz reports, its become a surprise hit in social media circles.
ROB SCHMITZ: Youve probably never walked down the street and looked for homeless people before. Most of us look the other way. But not Mark Horvath.
Mr. MARK HORVATH (Creator, invisiblepeople.tv): Hey man, you need some socks?
SCHMITZ: Horvath heads down Hollywoods Walk of Fame, looking for homeless people. When he finds someone, he reaches into an overstuffed backpack and pulls out a bag of fresh white socks. Nearly everyone takes a pair - when they do, Horvath pulls out a video camera and asks if he can interview them like he does with a guy named Rico. Rico is sitting on the sidewalk, working on a painting propped up by a bag with all of his belongings.
Mr. HORVATH: Rico, were all here on Hollywood Boulevard. Youre homeless, tell me about it.
RICO: Well, Im in L.A. now three months.
SCHMITZ: This style of bluntly reminding someone theyre homeless and then letting them talk works pretty well. The evidence is at Horvaths Web site, invisiblepeople.tv.
Mr. HORVATH: We're here in Des Moines, Iowa. Am I saying that right?.
BRIAN: Yes, Des Moines, Iowa.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SCHMITZ: This video, on the front page of the site, is one of hundreds of video profiles shot throughout California, and more recently the country. Its a profile of Brian, a bearded 54-year-old with tired blue eyes who says hes been homeless since he was 15 years old.
BRIAN: And I have no (unintelligible) but Im trying to find my way in life and I just recently been told last year that I have HIV, and Im scared to death. I got a woman that I love dearly. I dont know what to do. Im like a scared rabbit running for its hole, you know?
Mr. CHRIS PIRILLO (Social Media Expert): The content that Mark produces is very compelling because its so raw. Its so real.
SCHMITZ: Social media expert Chris Pirillo organizes the annual blogger conference Gnomedex. He says Horvaths ability to draw attention to his site through social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook has turned Invisible People into an overnight success.
Mr. PIRILLO: Its insanely difficult to watch. Its uncomfortable, because if you take a step back and you think, wow, this is like - this person who, you know, otherwise you might walk by, and now youre hearing their story.
SCHMITZ: Horvaths style is simple. Let people talk. But once the camera is off, Horvath turns back into that fast-talking, hustling Hollywood producer. Every story he tells comes back to promoting his work and railing against society for accepting homelessness. Its personal for Horvath. Fifteen years ago he was homeless.
He had been fired from a six-figure salary job at a television syndication distribution company. He dabbled in drug dealing and credit card fraud, but it didnt pay too well. He found help and God at a faith-based shelter. He cleaned up, moved to the Midwest and worked for a televangelist. But two years ago he lost another job and with it all his money. He foreclosed on his home in Missouri and ended up back in Hollywood barely making it.
Mr. HORVATH: So when I applied for food stamps, oh gosh, I thought I was crashing back to homelessness. Now, the first time I was on drugs and alcohol, and I did a lot of dumb things, but this time I was doing everything right, and I was still headed in that direction.
SCHMITZ: His predicament inspired him to create Invisible People. On the face of it, the Web site doesnt seem to be set up to collect money. Its simply video story after video story of the homeless. You have to click on a series of tabs to even find where you can donate. But this might be a stroke of fundraising genius.
The material is so powerful that after a few videos many people find themselves scrambling to find a page where they can donate. Thats exactly what happened last spring while Horvath was visiting the homeless living in tent cities outside Sacramento. He started using Twitter to document his journey.
Mr. HORVATH: That was the first real impact that I saw through social media, because people were like going - where are you going? What are you doing? We want to help you. We want to follow you. We want to - how can we support you? And when I got back to Los Angeles, my rent was paid for.
SCHMITZ: But it didnt stop there. As more bloggers shared Horvaths videos and as he aggregated more Twitter followers, big corporations took notice. Ford Motor Company lent Horvath a vehicle to drive across the country last summer to profile the homeless in Middle America. Hanes gave him socks to give away to his subjects. And more people simply surfing the Web are now donating money.
Horvath insists all the money raised goes right back into the Web site. Chris Brogan is the author of Trust Agents, a New York Times best seller about social media. He says invisiblepeople.tv marks a new way of supporting a social cause - not through some big non-profit but directly through one person doing one good thing.
Mr. CHRIS BROGAN (Author, Trust Agents): What hes got there is hes got a bunch of people who have really said, you know, Im interested in this. Im going to stick around. I want to make this matter.
SCHMITZ: And the support seems to be working. Horvath is now gearing up to head to Alaska to interview thousands of homeless people in Anchorage. Car rental company Hertz is sponsoring the trip.
For NPR News, Im Rob Schmitz in Los Angeles.