This Video Answers The Uncomfortable Question: Would You Recognize Your Family If They Were Homeless On The Street?

This hidden-camera video replaces the format's usual whimsy with an important message about the invisible homeless.

The sad truth about homelessness is that familiarity breeds invisibility. Even the most compassionate city-dwellers are likely to get inured to the sight of someone on the street who doesn’t look like they have anywhere else to go. Eventually, everyone tunes out—you can’t save the entire street no matter how much you care, so you put up a thousand-yard-stare defense. Still, the invisibility of homelessness is also one of the reasons that people who are in that position feel like they have such a hard time being treated as human beings—people look past them, rather than at them.

That’s something that led the New York City Rescue Mission and its creative partners to orchestrate an uncomfortable experiment called "Make Them Visible." Agency Silver + Partners, production company Smuggler and director Jun Diaz developed a hidden camera set-up that had people walk past their family members, who were sitting in the street, and made up and dressed to look like they were homeless. And all of the subjects walked right past their nearest and dearest.

"There’s only one person that didn’t make it into the film—because they couldn’t handle the fact that they walked by their family," says Jun Diaz, who directed the video out of Smuggler. "It happened every time."

Participants were recruited after being told that they'd be taking part in a vague documentary about people in New York, and Diaz, who partnered with a hidden camera team, captured them as they walked to the building for their initial interview, past a loved one who was positioned there.

"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," says agency chief creative officer Eric Silver of the origin of the project. "And then we talked about how often that happens and how that could even be possible. And why isn’t that shocking anymore? We talked about it some more and had a loose idea that we took to Jun (the director) and then the idea really started to take shape."

Diaz says that the hardest part of the project was actually talking with the participants, knowing that they were about to feel terrible when he presented them with the evidence that they walked past their brother/wife/cousin/etc without even noticing—and he stresses that the guilt reaction from people isn't the point of the project.

"The people were great. It wasn't about indicting anybody. It's not about the people we interviewed," he says. "They're all great in their own way; just people trying to get by in the city the best they can—but when they found out what it was all for, they got behind it. But we had to make it very clear that it could have been any of us. I'll tell you, it would have been me."

That's part of what makes this campaign so effective. Just like it could be any of us who walked past a loved one who looked homeless, it could be anyone's loved one who's actually out on the street. Reminding people of the humanity of the people they walk past every day is a worthy campaign to take on. Viewers can donate to the New York City Rescue Mission via this site, created by Reactive.

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  • What a powerful video. I've worked with people who are homeless so I usually say hi or goodmorning etc, a smile or a wave to acknowledge them. Even if I don't have any money to give them. This helps them feel like they are part of the human race, instead of de-humanising them by just walking by. I know many people feel uncomfortable not sure if they are on drugs or drunk. I just know that most of them are just like youand me, except they have hit hard times. So next time you see anyone sitting on the sidewalk say hi. or just smile and acknowledge them. Share this video to all your friends and family, we can all learn from it.

  • I get their point, and I agree that we need to pay attention to those fellow beings who have few if any other options in life....but in the case of many, the faces of their loved ones were hidden by a hat or sitting with their backs to pedestrian traffic. Take away the hats, have everyone face forward...then the results would be more reliable.

    That said, a smile costs nothing...look everyone you meet in the eye and smile.

  • If the point of the experiment is not to create a guilt trip, as Diaz claims, they could have chosen a situation where selective attention[1] is not at play. Human's attention is very limited, and we always ignore things outside of the task at hand. I bet if the relatives were disguised in unusual but nice clothes, different hair color and style, etc., participants on the "experiment" would have equally failed to recognize them. Yawn. [1] Typical example of selective attention is the video by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris where you are asked to count the dribbles. Go Google it.

  • Incredible video! Silver + Partners, Smuggler and Jun Diaz really get the issues of homelessness! These are the great story tellers that the New York City Rescue Mission need to get the message of hope out into the communities. Great story Dan!