For 21 years, Willie Baronet has been buying the hand-made signs that homeless people hold up asking for money or help. First, he made them into art works. Now, after a cross-country trip with a camera crew, a book and documentary are in the works. KERA’s Jerome Weeks explains.
The car rolls up to the man standing by the street sign. The window rolls down. “Would you be willing to sell me your sign?” asks the driver. “Sure.” They settle on ten bucks. “It’s for an art project,” the driver explains.
With that, Willie Baronet has bought himself another hand-made panhandler’s sign, something he’s been doing since 1993. But only this summer did Baronet start videotaping the encounters, like this one in Las Vegas. Like many people, Baronet has sat in his car at stoplights, feeling uncomfortable, even guilty. He was reluctant to make eye contact with the homeless person standing there. But on an impulse, Baronet offered to buy the man’s sign
“Once I started,” he recalls, “it really did provide an interesting way to engage the person. And then I couldn’t stop.”
The interaction changed Baronet’s relationship with panhandlers. He had a way to start talking, asking questions — and most importantly, listening. He says he’s learned not to make assumptions. Yes, some are substance abusers, some are mentally ill, some are veterans with PTSD. Some have health problems that bankrupted them.
“And in some cases it was burning all the bridges in their life,” he says. “And they had nobody that would offer them a couch to sleep on. But the real truth is that there are so many unique stories about how people got there.”
Baronet: “So one of the things I wanna ask you is what does home mean to you?
Michael from Las Vegas: “Trying to set goals for a higher level for myself.”
These days, Baronet estimates he owns nearly 900 signs – in his Oak Cliff studio, in his home, in his office at SMU. He’s spent more than $7000 on them. He’s got signs on wood, placemats, paper plates, plastic insulation, even a Styrofoam ice chest lid. There are heartbreaking signs. Some simply say “Hungry.” Or “God bless you.” There are funny signs. One says, “98 cents short on wife’s ransom.” There are ones intended to be amusingly blunt and honest about the signholder’s situation. “Beer me” one reads. “You non-generous bastard!”
The funny signs, the blunt ones, these are usually held by younger people, Baronet explains. But many of the cardboard signs, funny or not, are marked by large blotches. They’re the sweat stains from whoever stood by the road and held the sign – held it a long time.
“One of the things I heard from a couple of guys I talked to,” Baronet says, “was that they make so much more money when they keep their head down and don’t make eye contact. Which just breaks my heart to think that is how we are connecting with each other.”
The past few years, Baronet has used some of the signs in art installations in Dallas galleries. He also arranged flash mob, public art provocations with groups of young SMU students taking to the streets, clustering at intersections holding their own signs. The art shows stirred up local attention. But Baronet got international attention this summer when he traveled from Seattle to New York. In a month, he visited 24 cities and bought 292 signs. He and his camera crew traveled in two rented cars and taped 200 hours of Baronet talking with homeless people.
For the entire project, Baronet raised a little more than $48,000 through Indiegogo, the fundraising site. Eventually, he hopes to produce a book and a feature-length documentary called We Are All Homeless.
Baronet: What does home mean to you?
Christina from Denver: “That’s your heart. Your home is your heart. I am not home-less. I’m utility-less. There’s a big difference!”
Baronet teaches creative advertising at SMU. Having purchased these signs for 21 years, having traveled cross-country buying, inevitably, he can spot some trends. He points out that the image of someone standing by the road holding a sign has become such a symbol of asking for help, it’s become a comic internet meme. You can find stock images online and fill in the sign yourself. The funny signs, the blunt ones, started showing up only in the mid-’90s, Baronet says. Ten-to-fifteen percent of the homeless he met were women — including a 40-year-old grandmother in Chicago, panhandling with her two grandkids. Some women held signs that simply said “Pregnant.”
It’s illegal to panhandle in Dallas, so Dallas signs tend to be smaller, more quickly pocketed. Baronet says West Coast cities — cities with a less punitive approach to panhandling — have larger, more inventive signs. In Detroit, he didn’t find a single funny sign.
“I asked about what it’s like being on the road,” he says of his interviews. “I asked, what are some of the bad things you’ve experienced, what are some of the good things. And man’s ability to hurt another human being is pretty amazing sometimes.”
Baronet says, he put the signs in art galleries because it had people really looking at them, not looking away. “Can’t do that if I’m walking around a gallery with my friends and now I’m watching my friend walking behind that sign and, wow, I could see him holding that sign and, yeah, maybe this isn’t as far removed from me as I want to believe it is.”
Now he hopes, We Are All Homeless, the book and documentary, will do the same thing. Get people to see.