On a cold night in San Diego’s Little Italy, Neil Shigley was walking to a gallery opening when he passed a homeless man in a doorway. Their eyes met before Shigley could look away. The man’s face stayed with Shigley, and he knew then that he had to do his portrait. That’s how the series “Invisible People” started. In this interview, Mark visits the “Invisible People” exhibit and views his portrait for the first time.
My name is Mark, I’m from San Diego. I grew up right here on the end of 33rd and Imperial. I had a good upbringing, although home wasn’t always peachy-king… I’ve been homeless for about ten-fifteen years, I’ve been married twice, divorced twice, have seven kids, one grandkid. My mom is still alive, living in Arizona. My dad’s passed, and it’s still hard for me. It’s something that I feel I gotta do, to get to know myself, because my dad’s in here somewhere, so if I know myself, I know my dad, through genetics or otherwise.
I don’t have anything that I really want out of life. I know what I do need out of life, and that’s peace of mind. It’s hard… you think it would be the clean underwear and the clean clothes and all that stuff, and it’s not. Just to get up in the morning and know yourself, and know that you’re still a part of this world… So many people have been pushed out, through either insanity, or just the grueling way that we have to deal with life. Whatever it is that comes, I deal with it as best I can. For us, I think the hardest thing is keeping our wits, just staying sane while we’re out here on the streets…. Life shows up, and you have to deal with it.
The only thing I can refer to in my life right now is footprints in the sand. It’s not me; I’m being carried by a higher power. I choose to accept it. I’d like to have a family and a two-car garage and a dog and all that, but I think there are other things I have to do before that can even be possible. I have to get myself together, because somewhere along the line I made a mistake, if I had two divorces. So I want to take care of myself for a little while, and stay in touch with society as much as I can, but right now it’s about me and God. I’m not really concerned with this world; I’m concerned with the next.
And those who are out here, they need some kind of guidance, they need someone to show them that you can lay in the dirt out here and still have self-respect, dignity, pride, honor for other people, and respect for society. Whether you like it or not, can you be non-judgmental? That’s what I’m trying to do.
I see all kinds of people living next to each other, their kids go to school together, they take the same buses together, hell – they carpool, they play tennis, they’re on the same court, you got some guy’s neighbor’s dog pooping on his lawn… but they never know each other, they have no idea who each other are, what their culture’s like, what they’ve been through, what they’re going to go through, and I don’t know about you but I’d rather be around people that have the same drive for life – not necessarily the money, the cars and the women, but just the same drive. Like, hey, this guy, I don’t know who he is or what he is, but I’m going to reach out to him and show him that he’s not by himself.
…I know when someone means to do well to others. And for many people, it’s a trip. They drive by and they help you for themselves; they satisfy their own souls. And that’s ok… even a junkie has faith, they sit on the corner and they wait… that takes a lot of faith! It might be the wrong prayer, but it’s a lot of faith. But the few people who come by like Neil, they have this mutual feeling, this connection… he shares it out. My story is everyone’s story. Some details might be different, but it’s all the same – we just want to live. We want a space. Right now, I’m happy with my tent. I don’t want a mansion, fifty-two rooms that I don’t even sleep in. It’s not me.
I’m sure I’ll be back into a house, and everything will be peachy-king, and I’ll be part of society, but right now this is what I am and this is what I accept, and it doesn’t matter what society accepts or what society doesn’t. I do good things because they’re good things to do, and I don’t need a reason. I try to connect to the same people out there. The only way I can do it is through humility. I’ve tried the tough guy stuff – I could be out there robbing and stealing, but it’s not me, it’s not morally attached to me, and I wouldn’t feel right doing it. I don’t want to do anything in this world that I can’t do in front of my mom and my dad, and especially my grandmother! God would probably rather have me doing this than to have a gun at your face and know that you’re going to give me what I ask for.
When I met Neil, it was kind of like a destiny thing, because I knew someone would come along and ask what was going on. I mean I don’t look like the regular homeless person, I get that. A lot of people tell me, “You should be doing this and you should be doing that…” but there are also people [here]. When God gives you a task, you handle it. You have no room for yourself most of the time, and I’m all right with that. I’ve lived a full life as far as I’m concerned. I just want to make sure that people know that you can be out here and still be a person. It’s not what society sees in you, it’s what you see in yourself. And it’s not what people remember about me, it’s what God remembers about me. I don’t want to be all melodramatic, but when I met Neil, I seen the opportunity to send those sonic booms out. Everybody wants to die in a blaze of glory and things like that… I just want to pass a message to other people that it’s not all about material, and Neil gave me that chance. If people get the exhibit that he put up, I mean, not get it, but GET it, maybe they’ll start helping a little bit.
This is the combination that what we need to remove some of the misconceptions about the homeless. People – the first thing they think is “bum”. There are fathers out here who have their babies hidden in bushes, because the CPS gets ahold of them.
When I seen my picture… for someone to not just grasp your face and your expression but your emotion and what you felt that day… I seen the frowning in my face that day and it wasn’t from the sun. That’s a beautiful thing to catch a likeness from just one or two days being with someone. That’s a gift, and it’s being used right. When I look at the picture, I appreciate what I am, who I am.
I like that he calls it “Invisible People”, ‘cause that’s who we are. I hold the sign, I don’t talk to anyone unless I say “Hi”, and you wouldn’t imagine how many brothers have come by me and just cussed me out because they’re mad about the way society’s going, or maybe I put them in an awkward position, “Now I gotta help him, because he’s right there.” People can drive by me like a stop sign. Some choose not to, some choose to stop and talk to me, some choose to get out and pray with me. I’d rather be disliked than be ignored. No one wants to be ignored.
So I choose to do what I’m doing now, just living, surviving… you can call it surviving. I mean, God feeds rats and roaches, he wouldn’t forget me.
The gift that God has for people is something, man. It doesn’t have the spark that the devil has with the jeeps and range rovers, and the bars and things like that, but it’s beautiful. We’re reaching for things that we want, and we never really get what we need. And that’s bad. It passes us right by. We have to understand that this is a material world, and everything has a shelf life for a reason; everything will pass. It might take a while for it to pass, but it passes. So it has to be eternal… you got to understand that you’re learning something before you go. That saying is a trip, man, “As soon as I died, I started living.” It’s true. We’re learning about somewhere else. It’s not over.
And I don’t think that God made all of these people down here for us to be separated from each other.
Partial transcript of video interview.