It's a story that resonated with more than 1.5 million viewers. A woman who holds a Master's degree in Engineering with a job and a home one day--then living on the streets the next.
The story made national headlines and was aired on all major television markets in Los Angeles. A Go-Fund-Me page took in more than $20,000. However, the story has holes and is missing critical information. Information about substance abuse and addiction and long gaps in the workforce. It's not the first time the editor and publisher of the video, who was hired by Councilmember Mike Bonin's office in the past, has been questioned about unpacking the entire story.
A video titled "Homeless Woman Has a Masters in Mathematics and Engineering" was shot and edited by Mark Horvath, the founder of the nonprofit Invisible People. During the 11 minute interview published on YouTube, Horvath asked Ramona Peet about living in Westchester Park. "Mona, we're here, in a park by the airport, and this is where you live. Tell me about it."
Peet told Horvath that after finishing her [Master's] degrees, she had a career as a statistician, and that she co-authored several academic papers while working for utility companies. After that, she said she worked from home in the Upper Ojai Valley [4 hours a day at $25 an hour], which she lost when the Thomas Fire destroyed her home, and her boss fired her. Eventually, she said she made her way to Santa Monica for a brief time before pitching a tent in Westchester Park.
The story quickly went viral--to date has had more than 1.5 million views. The same day the video went up, a GoFundMe page for Peet was posted. The page explains Peets sudden descent into homelessness as follows: I became homeless on Monday, December 4, 2017, when the place where I lived burned to rubble in the Thomas Fire. At that time I lived in Upper Ojai. Four months later, my partner, who I lived with for 8 years (Dan), died quite unexpectedly.
Dan's name was on all our documents regarding our residence so I was not eligible to collect various monies associated with the fire, such as funds from FEMA / Red.Cross etc.
I was one of the fire victims who slipped through the cracks. I need some help getting back on my feet.
Within two weeks, Ramona raised close to $20,000 from 434 people, some of whom gave $1500. Along with the monetary donations--offers for jobs also came pouring in.
Public comments on the page expressed the surprise of many that such an accomplished woman could become unhoused so quickly. "Imagine you have a degree, house and work and one day your house burned and you ended up being homeless, never be judgmental to anyone!"
"Somebody with statistics and data knowledge is roaming homeless. Get this girl a house and put her to work! She is valuable." The well-spoken, blonde woman in the video appears to be just a hot bath, warm bed, and brief period of support and adjustment away from once again reaching her full potential as a statistician. Perhaps even able to replace her beloved dog who tragically died in 2019 and to help out her ailing boyfriend, Pete, who she said she fell in love with at first sight.
Horvath History with Bonin
According to his website, "The first step to solving homelessness is acknowledging its victims are people." Horvath adds he is "confident" that viewing just one of their videos will make the viewer "think differently" about homelessness, a problem the site says is "one of the most solvable."
Councilmember Mike Bonin put Horvath's talents for changing the public's perception to use when, in 2018, his office was looking to drum up support for the proposed A Bridge Home facility in Venice. In an email to Horvath, Bonin's Chief of Staff, David Graham-Caso, wrote, "The group opposing bridge housing is trying to characterize all homeless people in Venice as dangerous criminals from elsewhere. Your videos can help answer that unfair characterization, and we would like as many videos as possible."
On September 28, two weeks before a scheduled Town Hall in Venice about the Bridge Home, Invisible People invoiced the Councilman's Office for "On Location Digital Advocacy" [$5,000 paid in advance, $5,000 on the start date], which included "Targeted storytelling of people experiencing homelessness. Approximately 20 Invisible People videos" and "targeted storytelling of stakeholders on Invisible People digital assets".
Horvath's photos and videos were prominently featured on Bonin's social media that month.
Both Horvath and Bonin have been outspoken in their beliefs that the homelessness crisis is primarily one of housing affordability and have downplayed the role that addiction and mental illness play, as well as the crisis's threat to public health and safety.
When the story broke that Bonin was paying Horvath to sway public opinion in favor of his plan, Horvath published an article entitled "Response to Venice Bridge Housing Opposition's Smear Campaign."
In it, he insisted that he'd happened to be Venice to attend a YouTube conference and was coincidentally at the Town Hall [with professional photography equipment in hand], after which "Mike Bonin used a few images from Invisible People without my knowledge."
He characterizes the $10,000 he says he was paid for those "accidental" images as a "bargain" compared to the cost of homelessness to the city of Los Angeles. He also insisted that "I have not consulted with Mike Bonin or his team about marketing or social media."
Horvath's video of a "homeless vet" living on the streets of Philadelphia was featured in a story in the Philly Voice. "After several readers said they know the subject of the video questioned his veteran status," the reporter who initially covered the story wrote in an update, "PhillyVoice reached out to Mark Horvath of Invisible People to ask if he had confirmed the man's military record. Horvath would not discuss the claims on the record, but the video was taken down from YouTube shortly after we reached out."
Later, Horvath tweeted that the "The man in this video was not honest. As soon as I was notified, I removed it. I try to do what is right, and I am a very honest person!" Horvath never answered the reporter's question about whether he had verified the man's military record before posting his video on YouTube, where it received hundreds of thousands of views.
In 2020, partnering with a variety of advocacy groups, Invisible People released what they called a "Comprehensive New Look at Public Perception of Homelessness in America" based upon a survey of 2500 Americans, to be used as a "toolkit" designed to "build public will to invest in solutions." In a press release about the study, a co-author stated: "We found that stories of individuals being housed and rebuilding their lives resonate with audiences. In contrast, messaging that portrays our current system as successful is not considered credible by the general public who see evidence of individual suffering on the streets".
In short, Horvath seems to embrace his talents for swaying public opinion, in contrast to his 2018 rebuttal to the Venice Town Hall revelations, where he specifically insisted he was merely "documenting actual personal experiences to help people".
According to tax documents, in 2015, Invisible People took in $57,065 in gifts, grants and contributions. In 2019, that figure was $344,507 [with expenses of $262,658]. In 2019 Horvath tweeted, "I am unemployed without income. I work to fight homelessness and help people every waking hour seven days a week." Two years later, he proudly announced, "Tomorrow's my first payday. I have worked without compensation for over 12 years!"
Invisible People's homepage currently features two videos shot in Westchester Park: Ramona Peet and, in a video entitled "Noah is Homeless Because His Parents Are Addicts," a 21-year-old who arrived from the East Coast six months earlier and said the people living in the Park are some of the nicest people he's ever met. He also says that housed people are unfriendly and "need to see how great homeless people really are."
Westchester Park is one of the sites for temporary homeless housing proposed in a motion Bonin put before the City Council in mid-May which has met with strenuous community opposition. While the motion also includes several other public recreation sites, including Will Rogers State Beach, Fisherman's Village and Dockweiler State Beach, Westchester Park is one of the few already inundated with encampments since its parking lot became a site for the city's Safe Parking Program.
Peet's story is far more complicated than the video Invisible People posted of her. She did indeed receive a Master's degree from UC Berkeley in Industrial Research in 1998, according to alumni records. But in the 23 years since, according to her Facebook page, she's had just two jobs, both at market research firms, before becoming self-employed. No utility companies we contacted could confirm or deny that she had ever worked for them, and a search of academic research papers with her as a co-author turned up empty. She does not have a listing on LinkedIn.
A person [who did not want to be identified] who knew her verified that Peet was, indeed, living in Upper Ojai for over seven years with a man named Dan who she loved very much, in a trailer Dan was allowed to live in because he worked on the property.
According to this person, "Drugs are involved... it's a sad story." Court records show that Peet was arrested in Ojai at least half a dozen times for drug offenses between 2009 and 2017, and according to the source, "barely" worked during the time she was living with Dan, except [maybe] to "occasionally do tutoring."
In December of 2017, the trailer in which she and Dan were living burned down during the onset of the Thomas Fire, and the couple went to live with one of Dan's relatives in Ojai.
At the end of March 2018, Dan died suddenly, and shortly thereafter, Ramona moved to Santa Monica of her own volition, according to a close relative. According to her Facebook page, in mid-September, she checked into the Clare Foundation, a residential treatment facility.
Eight months later, in July of 2019, Peet stated she was "grateful for her placement at Turning Point," a non-profit near Baldwin Hills offering a rehabilitation and housing re-entry program for women "marginalized by addiction, trauma, criminality, incarceration, poverty, racism, sexism, homelessness, and violence" which requires its clients to "stand by the sobriety first model."
On her GoFundMe page, she states she met and fell in love with her current boyfriend two months later. In March of 2021, after 14 months of social media silence, she complained in a Facebook post that someone had stolen her bicycle from in front of her tent. Invisible People interviewed her on April 30.
Peet's acquaintance in Ojai said that, since Ramona's departure, they had "worried about her and wondered what had happened to her" but -- unlike the viewers of her Invisible People video -- were "not surprised" that she'd ended up on the street given her history.
In the video, Peet never mentions her criminal record, struggles with substance abuse or the fact that she had been in and out of a residential treatment facility as recently as 2019. And Horvath doesn't ask. But as our source in Ojai stated, when it comes to Ramona "the truth is out there".
It may be that, as with the video of that "homeless vet" in Philadelphia, Horvath simply failed to validate Ramona's claims before putting her video in front of 1.5 million people. Given that she was forthcoming about her substance abuse and mental health problems with at least one news outlet, it seems unlikely that Ramona asked him not to reveal that part of her life.
Whatever the case, the irony is that her real story -- that of promise and educational achievement lost to a decades-long struggle with addiction -- seems far more familiar to anyone who's tried to help a loved one get off the street, and reveals her to be more resilient, complex and ultimately human that the version of her in Horvath's video . But perhaps, for purposes of "building the public's will," Ramona's truth (aside from her master's degree) is inconvenient.