Would You Walk Past Your Mom Without Speaking? If She Were Homeless, You Might

The 'Make Them Visible' campaign proves just how much we’re conditioned to not see people living on the streets.
Apr 24, 2014·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

A few years ago, when my uncle passed away, I was surprised to learn that he’d lived in Los Angeles, where I live, for several years. He suffered from mental health issues, and my family had lost regular contact with him. As one of the city’s thousands of homeless residents, he frequently slept in a shelter that was only two blocks from what was then my office downtown. After his death, I wondered whether I’d walked by him without recognizing him.

As a new campaign from the New York City Rescue Mission proves, it’s likely that, because of his homeless status, my uncle would have been hidden to me. In its “Make Them Visible” video, people walk right by family members who have, through the magic of makeup and costuming, been made to appear homeless.

No one recognizes “homeless” relatives—not even when looking directly at them. What makes these pseudo-homeless individuals’ invisibility particularly poignant is that the video is edited to include footage of blithely-strolling-by relatives talking about how much their parent, spouse, sibling, cousin, or uncle means to them.

Eric Silver, the chief creative officer of Silver + Partners, which, along with production company Smuggler, developed the campaign for the mission, says a personal experience catalyzed the video’s creation.

"One of the creatives here, Howard Finkelstein, and I were walking down a typical New York block, and I commented on a particular homeless person, and Howard hadn’t even noticed him," Silver told FastCoCreate. "And then we talked about how often that happens and how that could even be possible. And why isn’t that shocking anymore?”

The duo took the idea to Smuggler director Jun Diaz, whose team recruited people by telling them they were participating in a documentary about New Yorkers. A hidden camera team filmed each one walking down the sidewalk and into the building—directly past a homeless relative—to be interviewed for the “documentary.”

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, America officially has 610,000 homeless people. Despite the massive number of people sleeping in doorways, on the street, or, like my uncle, in a shelter, most of us are used to ignoring the homeless in our midst. Diaz says the video isn’t “about indicting anybody.” Any of us could do this—in my case, I very likely did.

Diaz says when the participants “found out what it was all for, they got behind it [the campaign].” Because of cuts to SNAP and other safety net programs, the number of homeless is expected to rise in 2014. Surely we need to see the down-and-out among us more than ever.