An online video project aimed at putting a face to homelessness has helped change the life of a Calgary man who had lived on the streets for more than two decades.

Mark Horvath, who lives in California, films interviews with homeless people and puts those videos on his YouTube channel and his blog, called Invisible People TV. A television producer by trade who was once homeless, Horvath started the project to bring the stories of homeless people to a wider audience.

In March, Horvath was invited to speak in Calgary by the Calgary Homeless Foundation. While he was in the city he filmed a homeless man named Donny in an alley, huddled in a blanket by a heat vent.


In a YouTube video Donny talks about being homeless in Calgary. (Courtesy Mark Horvath)

"I thought my face was going to fall off it was so cold," recalled Horvath. "He seemed like such a nice, peaceful man. For him to be on the streets for 21 years… it just broke my heart."

In the video, Donny tells Horvath that he would rather be on the street than in Calgary's homeless shelters.

"I don't like going to the shelters because I always get things stolen. And I can't stay there. I can't be around that many people at night. I prefer to stay outside."

Offered home in basement suite

Calgary Homeless Foundation's CEO Tim Richter said when he saw the video, he got in touch with a downtown outreach team that spent about a week tracking Donny down.

"Finding people, especially those that are outside, that are vulnerable and longtime homeless like Donny [involves] a bit of detective work," said Richter.

Donny accepted an offer of a basement suite in northwest Calgary. Horvath recently posted a follow up interview with Donny, who was filmed in his apartment by an outreach worker.

"I am happy to be here," Donny says in the video.

As part of Calgary's ten-year plan to end homelessness, organizations that help the homeless are pursuing a policy called "housing first," which makes permanent housing a high priority, setting up people with apartments and suites before problems such as addiction and mental illness are addressed.

"A lot of people, years ago, might have said you can't expect [to take] people like Donny off the street and put him in an apartment, but that is exactly what we did," said Richter.

"He has support of folks to help him deal with whatever issues and things that may arrive. They are going to help him meet his goals."

In the last three years, more than 2,300 homeless people have been placed in homes thanks to the housing first policy, said Richter.

The long-term goal of the plan, which launched in January 2007, is to open up 11,250 affordable and specialized housing units in Calgary.