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Sep. 21 2009 - 12:00 pm | 436 views | 0 recommendations | 15 comments

Making the invisible visible


Sandra, sitting on the Michigan Avenue Bridge, Saturday afternoon

I didn’t even see her, sitting on the West side of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, but Mark did.

She was young, small, sitting with her orange tabby cat next to one of the bridges tall sculpted posts. Hundreds of people walking by almost blocked out here small, cardboard sign.

We stopped, and Mark knelt beside her. “What’s your name?” he asked. “What’s your story?”

Mark Horvath does this for a living. Well, sort of. He runs a site called Invisible People and travels the country, talking to homeless people and documenting their stories. He used to be homeless himself, 14 years ago on the streets of Hollywood after battling addiction. He now dedicates his life to helping people really see the homeless we walk by every day.

People like Sandra.

Sandra was sitting on the bridge because she lost her job. She moved here a few months ago, just her and her cat, and was doing alright until she got laid off. Now, she doesn’t have any money and no place to stay. She’s trying to save up enough to get back home to Seattle, but it’s hard to save money living on the street. She panhandles to raise $40 for a hotel room every night, but there isn’t much extra to save for a ticket home.

“It’s hard. If it weren’t for him,” she says, pointing to her cat, “I don’t know what I’d do.”

Mark gave her a pair of new, clean socks, and we moved on.

He stopped in Chicago for two days on his tour around the U.S. He’s been to Vegas, Phoenix, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Detroit, New York and many more cities, just over the last two months. He let me follow him on Saturday on his journey to meet the homeless in Chicago.


It’s barely 20 feet, just the other side of the bridge, before we meet the next person.

Reggie’s been homeless for years, since his mother and brother died. After their death, his grief deadened him, making it hard for him to do anything. He lives on the street now, and he says he doesn’t even want to be here.

His pain was so visible. He’s wounded he could barely raise his head to talk to us.

I held his hand for a minute. Maybe a little longer than you should hold a stranger’s hand.

When I got on the train that morning to go down and meet Mark, I had a song stuck in my head. It was an odd song, sort of came in out of the blue. Cheery and sunny, I imagined Doris Day waltzing around a bedroom, putting her little boy to sleep.

I still had it stuck in my head when we went to meet AnnMarie. Mark had connected with AnnMarie over Twitter.

Even though she’s homeless, she uses twitter and facebook to keep up with friends and family, to express herself and her frustration with a lonely world.

We sat and ate together, and AnnMarie told me about the abuse in her past that caused her PTSD and how it keeps her from holding down a job and making a more normal life for herself. She has two kids, 15 and 9, who she almost never sees.
She has a picture of them on her phone from a few years ago – smiling and waving at her. She’s applied at several supportive housing places, but they’ve turned her down because of her PTSD. She’s working on getting a place to stay and getting good health care to deal with her problems, but it isn’t easy. She takes the bus and the train for hours and hours each day, looking for someone who will be able to help her.

Often times, she comes downtown, just to spend the day, like today. She walks around and looks at things. Says hi to a few homeless people she’s made friends with.

Living on the street has been hard on her, especially because of the way men often treat her. Homeless men can be aggressive when they see a woman alone, she says, and their advances often trigger her most violent and hurtful memories from her childhood.

Mark and I walked back, he to his hotel, me to the train. He had given Annmarie a little money, something he doesn’t normally do. He does this for a living, talking to people day-in, day-out, but AnnMarie really got to him.

It’s hard to know what to do, we both thought. Do you help people individually? I wanted to get Sandra a ticket home, Reggie a warm place to stay and AnnMarie the help she wants and needs.

But helping one person doesn’t seem like enough. There are a million homeless people sleeping on America’s streets tonight. Do you give money or help to one – to try and reach one human being because every person is deserving of dignity? Or should we be giving money to places that can help more, that can even change the societal structures which push people into homelessness?

Mark calls them “invisible people” because so often, they lurk unnoticed on the edges of society. We walk by them on the street, not seeing them or too busy or uncomfortable to stop. Do we give money? Do we buy them a sandwich? We don’t know, and so we pretend we don’t see them because there’s no easy answer.

We distance ourselves mentally, too. The homeless are drug addicts. The mentally-ill. Not us. Not like us. They’re homeless because they want to be, many say. They’re too lazy to do anything but ask for spare change. Not like us. It couldn’t happen to us.

Sitting next to AnnMarie, Doris Day kept singing in my brain.

“I asked my mother what would I be? Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me….”

It didn’t sound so sweet this time. Whatever will be will be? What kind of answer is that? Here I was, sitting next to someone who felt so like me. And Sandra, and Reggie. They felt like me too. Why was I the one asking the questions while they asked for change?

It seems so cruel. AnnMarie and I were both little girls long ago, wondering what we would grow up to be. Did she ever imagine she would be sleeping in an empty lot, depending on the kindness of strangers?

Doris Day has no answers and neither does her mother. Neither do I.


15 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand
    Teresa Puente

    Thanks to Mark Horvath and you Megan for putting a face on homelessness. We need to be reminded that we can’t simply ignore it.

  2. collapse expand

    Homeless people should be encouraged to go down to the Streetwise office on west Lake. Selling Streetwise can generate enough income for housing. They also have training programs and other support services. They have flyers that you can give to the homeless with the necessary info.
    Otherwise a great article. There are so many more homeless people around the loop this year.
    And to answer your question: I think we have to help one person at a time. So many groups that purport to help are busy doing advocacy and playing politics. Nobody knows how to fix society to make homelessness go away; everyone just has opinions. The real need is one-on-one, in my opinion.

    • collapse expand

      I totally agree, @rwoodley, that there needs to be more practical compassion and less political advocacy, though I think folks working together can strengthen each other in the battle. Bureaucracies are not capable of compassion and people within the bureaucracies simply are not in a place to know the individual needs of their clients in any meaningful way. Personally, I work through my church–in giving and in time–to help as I am able. There are people in my church with more time than I have and who are able to stay focused on the battle. They are grateful for my help when I can offer. In the meantime, I keep eye open to the homeless I encounter along the way, to engage them, listen them, show them respect.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand
    Dawn Nicole Baldwin

    Megan, you did a beautiful job of capturing these stories. Seriously.. it made me want to cry.
    It makes me angry and sad at the same time. Shifts perceptions of what most people picture as “homeless.”
    Appreciate all that you & Mark are doing.

  4. collapse expand

    Another great report. Thanks, Megan.

  5. collapse expand

    RE: Sandra, if you can panhandle $40 a day for a hotel room, you can stay up all night and save the $40 for a bus ticket and sleep on the way to wherever you’re going. Or you go to a temp agency or a hotel and get a job cleaning rooms, and shower and crash in an empty room once you’ve been working there a few days. Or you get on the metro and cat nap and hustle your butt off making enough for a bus ticket, or you call your family. If you have a “home” somewhere, you have someone. Or you go to the YWCA. There’s more to her story….but what? Not being critical, but saying – it sounds like she’s given up and I feel sorry for her.
    Ann Marie I understand. PTSD is a bitch and a hard thing to deal with. Mark does wonderful things. It’s hard to see people sink into depression and give up. I hope each and every one finds their way out.

  6. collapse expand

    Being a woman on the street she should not, if possible, be alone at night. The streets are not safe for a woman alone. There are way too many predators looking for woman that are alone to prey upon. Not a nice thing to say, but it is the unfortunate truth. So panhandling to get enough money for a room is a very smart thing for her to do. Kudos for her smarts. I am homeless and have seen the predatory moves against women and step in to stop it if I am able. It has caused some injuries, minor, but at least the women are safe. I still have my morals and ethics.

  7. collapse expand

    This story, initially, seems moving. But it is part of the problem. It is easy to feel sorry for these people and give them a dollar. It is hard to truly help them. If you refuse to recognize their very real internal emotional/psychiatric problems, you cannot effectively help them. I had a relative who was homeless for a while so I know what I am talking about. He was an addict. He is now a recovering addict. It took several years for him to face his problem and make the changes that needed to be made, but he has done it. He is now drug free, married, employed, has a child and happy. AS a Christian I can tell you God calls us to reach out and love people just the way they are as He loves us. Even if these people are mentally ill or addicts, God wants us to love them. He loved people who were sick and healed them . So we must be conduits for His healing love. When people are living on the streets they have most likely been cut off from their families and friends, often by their own destructive behavior. The kinds of people who are available to help us can become unavailailable when we repeatedly engage in negative behavior. So the girl who says she wants to go home but can’t get the money, for example, makes me wonder why her family and friends at home won’t send her the money. You can buy a bus ticket to just about anywhere in the country for $200.00. Sorry, to me, in the end, this story is more about making the writer feel superior to other people who are seen as “not caring” then about helping homeless people. And that makes it really, really not good.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist living in Chicago writing about poverty and public housing. I don't come from the streets - I grew up on a farm. But I'm passionate about urban issues and getting to know people who are completely different from me. I'm quirky, funny and friendly.

    I have this idea about journalism - that it should be approachable and less "newsy." I want my stories to make you laugh, cry and draw you in to neighborhoods and situations you don't deal with every day. I hate the broadcaster voice. I hate TV news. I hate the inverted pyramid. I love surprise. I love humor. I love people and telling their stories.

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