ST. LOUIS — Mark Horvath is running late to meet a documentary film crew waiting for him at a downtown hotel. But as he drives past a group of homeless people congregating at a bus stop, he pulls up, steps out on the sidewalk, and yells: "Anybody need socks?"
The response is immediate. The group quickly gathers around Horvath, reaching for clean pairs of socks — two each — and a parting handshake or hug.
Once in and out of homelessness himself, Horvath knows from experience that socks are in high demand on the street.
"First off, there's no place near here that sells socks if you panhandle. And even if you raise $5, what are you gonna spend it on, food or socks?" he said.
That's part of Horvath's normal routine. The socks: donated from a Hanes sponsorship. The car he drives: donated from Ford Motor Co. And Horvath's three-month, cross-country trip to film homeless people telling their stories: paid for with a $50,000 grant from Pepsi.
Horvath's stop in St. Louis is part of his second U.S. tour meeting the homeless of various cities, recording their stories and posting them raw on his website, invisiblepeople.tv.
On his last tour of U.S. cities, he didn't stop by St. Louis. He almost didn't stop this time.
"I didn't really want to come back," he said. "It's where I lost my house."
Horvath once made six figures in Los Angeles working for a television syndication company. Following a battle with alcoholism, he found himself on the street in 1995.
Horvath cleaned himself up and began working for faith-based organizations and homeless shelters. In 2005, he moved to O'Fallon, Mo., and began working as a communications director for the Church on the Rock in St. Peters. By 2007, he once again owned a home.
But that fall he "found unemployment," he said. In July 2008, he found a job in Los Angeles, but he was laid off in November. Unable to sell his home in O'Fallon, he lost it to foreclosure.
Once again without a job, Horvath began documenting the lives of people in a position he knew well. His project began drawing buzz with the help of social media like Twitter and Facebook, attracting followers from across the country.
"It's primarily because of social media that I'm not homeless," he said.
In July 2009, he set out to tour the country, documenting the homeless in dozens of cities.
This year, he's doing the same thing.
Horvath's stop in St. Louis marked the middle of his trip, which is scheduled to continue into October. His work has generated enough attention that YouTube has featured it on its homepage.
Horvath traveled to the Budget Inn in Wentzville. In Room 118, he met Jean Malendes and her five children, who have been living there since March.
Horvath listens — and records — as she tells him how she lost her job at a law firm when it moved to California.
Horvath poses one of his regular questions: "If you had three wishes, what would they be?"
Holding back tears, Malendes knows the answer right away: a home, space for her kids to play, and a good, steady job.
"This is the story I try to tell," Horvath said in the hotel lobby. "These are invisible people."