DALLAS ― Willie Baronet bought his art collection one piece at a time—from homeless people throughout the country.
Each piece is made of cardboard or paper scraps. They’re covered in black marker and misspelled scrawls. They’re battered by wind and stained by sweat.
Baronet, 54, an advertising professor at Southern Methodist University, purchased hundreds of signs used by panhandlers to ask for food and money. Initially, he was fascinated by the texture, materials and messages. He became drawn to the stories of those who created them.
“Need Food / Please Help”
“Pregnant homeless & hungry”
“Dreaming of a Cheeseburger”
“Ex-wife had a better lawyer”
“Smile! You could be homeless.”
Baronet, a slender Cajun with a goatee, bought his first sign in 1993 as a way to cope with the guilt, judgment and discomfort he felt when driving by a panhandler. He started to roll down the window instead.
He turned the signs into an art project. At galleries, he stuck them to the floor and strung them from the ceiling. He organized a flash mob holding the signs. In 2012, he delivered a TEDx talk at SMU about the project.
Baronet explained that he had lost his apprehension of homeless people. He drew parallels between their stories and his childhood in an abusive home. Their desire for safety and stability struck a chord.
“I started to have a real connection to the people on the street—no fear anymore about talking to them,” he said in the speech. “The big shift I noticed was that it was no longer me and them. It was just us.”
During the talk, Baronet suggested traveling the country looking for signs, The Dallas Morning News reports.
In July, he took that journey with a three-person crew—photo director Tim Chumley of Richmond, Virginia; producer Eamon Downey of New York; and camera operator Olivia Morrow of Seattle—who filmed the project for a documentary. They raised money for it online and through word of mouth.
The team stopped in 24 cities over 31 days and found signs near tourist destinations, million-dollar apartments and abandoned buildings. They noticed the effect of geography and laws.
In Denver, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, more signs had bubble letters, colors and catchy slogans. Signs ran large since they didn’t need to be hidden from police.
In Detroit, he found signs all over the city near graffiti and dilapidated buildings. There were no lighthearted messages—“only serious and heartbreaking,” he said.
In Cleveland and Atlantic City, Baronet found plenty of homeless people but no signs—a reflection of panhandling laws.
His conversations affirmed the complex and numerous causes of homelessness. He said he doesn’t judge the people he meets or how they spend their money. He buys the signs and listens to their stories.
Many people he approached had grown used to being ignored. They held up signs but looked at the ground or closed their eyes. Some were missing teeth or an arm or leg. They smelled and had dirty clothes.
He met people who said they had been harassed, spit on or shot with a pellet gun. They’ve learned most people prefer them to be invisible.
A hard-looking man under a bridge in Phoenix cried when Baronet acknowledged him. “You’ve got to have a very tough shell to be ignored like that day in, day out,” he said.
In Baltimore, he met Ellie, 17, an undocumented Romanian immigrant. She showed him around a neighborhood with homeless people and underage prostitutes.
He met Dinell in an Albuquerque park with her son and two cats. She held up a sign that asked for $8 to buy an inhaler. If she wins the lottery, she told him, she will open a shelter that allows people and their pets.
His most expensive sign came from a disabled veteran in New York City who had no legs and no voice. Clear plastic tape shielded the sign from wind, rain and snow. The veteran mouthed words as they negotiated, telling Baronet he couldn’t give up the sign for any less than $50.
“You could tell he’d been using it for years,” he said. “It was just falling apart.”
Baronet said he felt constant gratitude on his trip for a shower, for a cup of hot coffee, for a toothbrush.
“I continually feel like I’m not doing enough, and that’s part of the project for me,” Baronet said. “I realize I can’t save all of these people. In most cases, I’m just giving them a bit of cash.”
He doesn’t have an answer for how to end homelessness but opposes laws “designed to keep the homeless hidden.”
“We’re not going to solve homelessness by pretending it doesn’t exist,” he said. “I’m not a homelessness expert. I’m not a policymaker, but I know we should not legislate them away.”
On a street in Cincinnati, Baronet bought a sign from an elderly man. The message, written in black marker, asked passers-by to drive safely and wished them a blessed day.
Baronet later discovered another message, in red ink and tiny letters: “Sorry for being a bum.”
It’s a side of the sign most didn’t see.