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Joshua Hayes: “The Invisible Class”

Right now probably our biggest focus is how we have chosen to release The Invisible Class. We made the film because there’s not a single homeless documentary out there that details the systemic causes of how we got here. And if something doesn’t exist, create it. Now, upon release we’ve created a poverty education campaign […]

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Right now probably our biggest focus is how we have chosen to release The Invisible Class. We made the film because there’s not a single homeless documentary out there that details the systemic causes of how we got here. And if something doesn’t exist, create it. Now, upon release we’ve created a poverty education campaign that centers around homeless service providers. That means 9 times out of 10 if you’re watching our film, it’s via a partnership with a different homeless organization. While it’s clearly ambitious, I hope to have a partnership screening with almost every homeless org in The United States in order to benefit each one of them directly. So that in addition to educating the audience as documentary films do, we want to go a step past that and also engage them. Individual screenings are also food, clothing, and hygiene kit donations for the unhoused, as well as opportunities for volunteer signups for each and every organization (we provide signup sheets and other materials). They can also be used to educate the local audience on city and state political measures and often act as potential fundraisers for them as well. I think a lot of people (myself included) watch documentaries, get inspired and don’t know how to help. Our screenings give options and empower the audience as well as the organization.


As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Hayes, a documentary filmmaker known for the groundbreaking film The Invisible Class, which tells the story of homelessness in America. It was filmed over an 11 year period travelling America and is being screened in partnerships with homeless organizations across The United States. He is also the Executive Director of the nonprofit Visual Anarchy which makes pro bono short films for nonprofits and community organizations in need, and teaches free video production.


Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I was born in Southern California and raised in between two small towns. The first Twentynine Palms is famous because it has a giant military base and the second Joshua Tree is famous for the nearby National Park of the same name. It’s quite the dichotomy. I was raised by a single mom who did everything she could to keep me out of trouble, but unfortunately for both of us, I‘ve had to learn the majority of my life lessons by actually making the mistakes myself. Not by learning from those who came before me. That made for some long days and nights for both of us growing up. 
I’ve always loved cameras. When I got my first job at 16 the first thing I ever saved up for and bought with my own money as an adult was a video camera. I was obsessed with filming my surroundings, school, and friends and convinced that I was living out the happiest years of my life in High School. As such I felt compelled to document it before the crushing weight of adulthood took sway. It never did. I suppose it’s only natural I became a documentary filmmaker years later after moving to San Francisco and fell in love with all things camera.
I also competed professionally in Mixed Martial Arts, while in college and working two jobs, and that unique lifestyle led to an MTV documentary.

San Francisco is where I fell in love with social justice work, where I founded my nonprofit Visual Anarchy in 2015, and the home base for an 11 year project working with the homeless community. My time is now split between there and London.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

I have a few. First thing I ever got paid to film was a wedding. Rented a camera and all the equipment (so didn’t make any money). Even though I was 21 I had never been to a wedding so after nervously spending hours getting the cameras and microphones and equipment perfectly set, it’s time for the Bridge and Groom came out. Here they come, but wait…. everybody stands up! I had no idea people would rise when they came out, so all my cameras got blocked and I blew the whole shot. Hey at least I got a second chance to film it…..Wait. 
Farther down the path (about 5 years later) I got on Howard Zinn’s radar to request an interview for the The Invisible Class. For a historical portion where we talk about the Great Depression. We were told explicitly you have 30 mins with him, nothing more or less and to meet him at his vacation house near Cape Cod. We arrived excited and a little nervous, he welcomed us onto the back porch, asked us questions for an hour, did the interview for another 45, and then told us to stick around and chat for another hour. We sat on his back porch facing the water, talking about anything and everything, and had the time of our lives meeting one of our heroes. He had the air of a friendly grandpa. When we were leaving he apologize if kept us to long, which made us laugh. We could have sat there all day. He passed two months later.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn are obvious answers because it’s not common to meet your heroes. That meant a lot. Chris Hedges and Gabor Mate as well. Being on stage with Moby, Cypress Hill, Santigold, and other musicians was really cool and felt awesome. As a freelance camera operator for 15 years who takes any job he can find, there’s a lot of folks.

But if I’m being honest, the majority of the most interesting people I’ve ever spoken with are/were homeless. Spending more than a decade travelling The US and talking to the unhoused is an education on the realities of Americanism, it’s hopes and dreams, it’s failures and successes. I met some of the most hopeful and positive people in some of the most dire situations, and 90% of them had lived lives harder than most of us. 
On the first day of research for The Invisible Class, I was being taken around a homeless shelter by a social worker and a case manager, and halfway through I was introduced to this amazing homeless woman who was kind of the unofficial spokesperson for the place. She had a powerful, commanding presence and inspired me to take my social justice work more seriously. Turns out she was a former Black Panther and was now homeless. An Italian man had lived in America for 20 years as a florist, and had just become homeless. He taught me how to organize a bouquet for an hour, did an interview after, and then asked me not to release the interview because his daughter was in college and didn’t know he was homeless. He didn’t have the heart to tell her. I never released the interview. A retired police officer and military veteran who told me the same thing after an interview. Being listened to is a powerful thing when you’re disempowered and sometimes that’s all I did and footage won’t ever be seen. Interviewing someone the day they get housing after years of waiting is amazing too. Talking to someone on day one of being homeless is the other side of the spectrum.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Currently we’re working on two pro-bono projects via my non-profit. And if we can ever find funding I’d like to be able to double or triple the amount of orgs we’re helping.

The first is a org I’ve wanted to work with for some time called the Latin Advocacy Network. They’re a small human rights nonprofit run by a Bolivian lawyer named Claudia Abasto. They give legal services to vulnerable Latinos and are fighting an enormous tide of civil liberties violations currently via ICE. The current and most devastating being centred around ICE’s detention of children without keeping any records in complete violation of US Asylum Laws.

The Second is a project in support of the Western Regional Advocacy Project. WRAP was created to expose and eliminate the root causes of civil and human rights abuses of people experiencing poverty and homelessness in our communities. In 11 years of working with the homeless community, they’re the number one org. Stop what you’re doing right now and check out their work. Wraphome.org is where you can find them. For all the big nonprofits that most of us have heard of and usually respect, there’s a litany of nonprofits who are doing incredibly important work with no budget and almost no resources. But fight the good fight every day. Those are two of them.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

As a person who loves to study history, the number is FAR too high, so I’m not sure how to cherry pick only a few people. So maybe instead I’ll turn the question on it’s head a real study of history always shows things are more complicated than they seem, that people are flawed, and that it’s almost always a matter of perspective. I think that’s what A People’s History of The United States taught us. And it goes both ways. So I could say a classic example like Rosa Park, because she had the courage as an unknown everyday citizen to stand up and say “no, not today:”. Something we would all hope to do.

However at closer examination Rosahad instead had an established track record and commitment to social justice work with the NAACP long before that happened. So that myth marginalizes her quite a bit.

Or maybe you could say Franklin Roosevelt for what he did post-depression (and he did some amazing things) getting this country back on track. WPA, Civilian Conservation Corps, the list goes on. That’s what he’s most famous for.

But his administration also created the racist housing policies that set people of color back to this day and created the ghettos (literally). We break that down in The Invisible Class. And he also interned something like 127,000 Japanese people. So if you’re Japanese or a person of color how do you feel about FDR? Read Langston Hughes’ poem “Waiting on Roosevelt” for one answer.

Shorter answer: Rigoberto Manchu, Susan B Anthony, and John Muir to name a few.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

Right now probably our biggest focus is how we have chosen to release The Invisible Class. We made the film because there’s not a single homeless documentary out there that details the systemic causes of how we got here. And if something doesn’t exist, create it. Now, upon release we’ve created a poverty education campaign that centers around homeless service providers. That means 9 times out of 10 if you’re watching our film, it’s via a partnership with a different homeless organization. While it’s clearly ambitious, I hope to have a partnership screening with almost every homeless org in The United States in order to benefit each one of them directly. So that in addition to educating the audience as documentary films do, we want to go a step past that and also engage them. Individual screenings are also food, clothing, and hygiene kit donations for the unhoused, as well as opportunities for volunteer signups for each and every organization (we provide signup sheets and other materials). They can also be used to educate the local audience on city and state political measures and often act as potential fundraisers for them as well. I think a lot of people (myself included) watch documentaries, get inspired and don’t know how to help. Our screenings give options and empower the audience as well as the organization.

We’ve also created an Employee Trainings to help educate homeless organizations and businesses internally. They’re private screenings and like community screenings have a Q&A with The Director (me), as well as some additional resources.

Also our nonprofit Visual Anarchy makes free short films for small community groups, nonprofits, and those in need. That’s a big deal as it allows them to share their message and their contributions to society when they otherwise might not have the means to do so. This works as a mission statement, a potential fundraiser, and more.
Additionally we teach free video production so orgs don’t need us to share their own voices in the future. It’s the classic teach a person to fish idea…
We also run an educational podcast called Rack Rocus where we interview the people who work behind the scenes in film and television.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?

My aha moment for falling in love with documentaries came watching the Fog of War in one of Joe McBride’s film classes at San Francisco State University. I hadn’t really had much interest before that but Eroll Morris’s film interviewing Robert McNamara absolutely blew my mind. If we’re talking about homelessness it came in two places. One a two hour conversation with a homeless person in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and secondly when we came across the Without Housing Report from the Western Regional Advocacy Project. After that I realized the narrative on homelessness is woefully inaccurate and constantly misexplained, and therefore misunderstood. Said another way, systemic causes first, everything else second. Without Housing is the single most important thing to read if you want to understand mass homelessness.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I save each and every positive story or outcome as a piece of inspiration and fuel during the harder moments. Often, it’s conversations when delivering the hygiene kits, clothing, food, supplies for children, etc. that are collected at our screenings. A young woman getting an outfit for an upcoming job interview a few days before it takes place. Handing kids a toy or a family food supplies. Another side of it is hearing from homeless advocates who thank us for making the only homeless documentary that addresses the systemic causes that created mass homelessness. Last week an advocate from Baltimore emailed me and said “I’ve been an advocate for the homeless for 8 years, and been working in policy for the last 4 years, and I didn’t my housing history. Thank you for empowering my conversation”. Then of course it’s watching someone get housing. We interviewed a man in Austin, Texas 5 years ago and I recently saw that a. He got housing and b. He was the groom in the first ever wedding at Community First Village for the homeless. I’m a crier, and that one was floodworks. And we’ve filmed that housing community before the first stake was in the ground so it was awesome to see the village get built. Kudos to Alan Graham and company for that.

Stuff like that is amazing.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

  1. We operate on the most shoestring of budgets you can imagine. Last year our budget was a little over 4000 dollars. We operate at a loss every year. We need funding, and we don’t know how to get it. Perhaps a volunteer grant writer, or the person with the right connections. We can extend the reach of our film and our nonprofit significantly if someone is willing to help us with that.
  2. For cause specific information, advice, questions, feedback you can reach out to us at the links at the bottom of the article. Reach out to us about anything. We’re also looking for video production gear from people and businesses to be donated. We have an idea of creating a lending library for folks who can’t afford equipment.
  3. Do you work for a company that is socially minded? Consider an Employee Training. Businesses have a lot of influence, resources, and should have a vested interest in their local and national economies. The conversation around homelessness needs to be focused correctly if we’re going to end it. It’s constantly misunderstood. A 90 minute documentary film has a lot of people to convince people in a short period of time, and doc films have shown time and time again that focused the right way, they can create action. We need your help to educate businesses, politicians, etc. Lets amplify the message to end homelessness and to confront systemic inequality.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

-I like the idea that social justice is our duty and not our right. That’s an awesome distinction. That resonates for me on a lot of levels and helps keep the ego in check.

-If you want to help a person or a cause, ask them what they need. Don’t just assume it or come with a predesigned idea. I can’t tell you how many times we made this mistake in the early days. At least half the time what is needed is something you won’t have anticipated.

-I think no matter who you are, what you’ve been through, mistakes you’ve made, nobody can you stop you from trying to help others. There’s redemption in it. And I think that many of us who have made the biggest mistakes want to help the most.

-It’s important to point out there’s a “cause” out there for everyone. Like doing things with your hands? Beach cleanups and Habitat For Humanity. Feel a calling to the mentally ill? Consider training/volunteering for a depression/suicide hotline. Don’t like people? Volunteer at an animal shelter. Wanna guide young folks? Become a mentor. 
-Get out in nature, turn off the devices and reset. It helps with stress, burnout, and perspective.

We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

A lot of people. 
For filmmaking, I’m looking towards our 2nd feature documentary film and have some really exciting ideals. But I’m also open to others. We’re most passionate about stories that aren’t being told or have been told incorrectly. If you’re a journalist or an impassioned person, send us an email or an ideal. If you’re a film financing or distribution company private benefactor, grant writer, grantmaker, etc. perhaps we can have a conversation about future projects.

For homelessness:

-If you’re a service provider lets connect and empower your organization.

-If you’re an influencer, or close to someone who is, that is passionate about affordable housing and eliminating mass homelessness, lets connect. The biggest examples are probably Pearl Jam, Bon Jovi, and Marc Benioff, etc. but there are hundreds of folks out there whose help we need if they’re willing. You can empower us to expand our national screening campaign with your influence.

For Visual Anarchy

-Small organizations in need. Reach out to us.

-People who can help empower our nonprofit (I realize how broad this is).

-Video equipment manufacturers for in kind donations to create a lending library and help with future productions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s so many. But I’ll tell you one that’s always stuck with me. I saw it Noam Chomsky’s office whenI interviewed him. It’s from Betrand Russell and it’s part of the prologue to his autobiography. I suggest reading the whole thing because that’s where the power in it lies but it’s too long for here. Here’s the open it’s just a fraction of it.

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.”

How can our readers follow you online?

To learn about homelessness and the housing history that got us here, visit The Invisible Class: www.theinvisibleclass.com

To learn about the nonprofit: www.visualanarchy.tv

To hire us for video production work: wwww.visualanarchy.tv/upstartmedia

To check out our podcast Rack Focus: https://www.visualanarchy.tv/rackfocus

Email: [email protected]

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!


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