What buying signs from the homeless has taught me about home

Prof. Willie Baronet has come to better know the homeless through collecting their signs.

Willie Baronet

By Willie Baronet

Back in the early 90s, when I first began to see homeless people standing on street corners holding signs, I felt awkward. I'd position my car so I wouldn't have to look at them, or pretend to do something else. I felt guilty too, wrestling morally with whether or not I was doing good by giving them money, wondering how they would spend it.

So, in 1993, I began buying and collecting these signs. Like many of my ideas, it was born out of frustration, and I didn't know where it would lead me.

These interactions all began the same way, with me asking them if I could buy their sign. Usually they said "Sure," followed closely by "How much?" Once negotiations began, I was amazed at how different they seemed. Their body language shifted and they were engaged, motivated. Less victim-y. They were almost always grateful to sell the signs, some overly so. A few were curious why I wanted them. I said it was for an art project, though I had no clue what that project was.

There have been so many fascinating encounters. One pitifully thin woman told me that her deceased husband had made her sign, pointing out his name scrawled on the back. She broke down in tears when we made the exchange. Many of the signs themselves are heartbreaking: "Hungry family with 4 kids need food and motel. Please help." And it's not just the words, it's the lettering and the typos. Some are more lighthearted: "Hello Earthlings. Just visiting. Need help back to Mars. Spacecraft out of fuel."

The average price per sign is probably about nine bucks. I've never paid more than 25.

Over time, I became very comfortable having these conversations, shaking hands and connecting with these men and women, often while I held up traffic. I became aware that they each had a reason they were on the streets. Human beings trying to get through their lives, dealing with adversity, looking for love, safety, connection. Just like you or me.

I've never been homeless, nor had any real fear of being homeless. I was born into a fairly low income family, the eldest of eight children. Home to me back then was usually a crowded, noisy place where we all competed for attention. There was always food to eat and a place to sleep. But it was a scary place, too. My father, dealing with the pressures of such a large family on a small income, and having never been taught much emotional awareness, did a poor job of dealing with his anger. He often unleashed it on me, my siblings and my mom. There were visible bruises, broken doors and worse. Mostly, there was fear. For me, home never felt safe.

As it happens, 1993 was also the year I wrote a letter to my dad on Father's Day. In it, I confronted him about my childhood, and said I was done being afraid of him. I asked him about his past, his hopes and dreams. Three months later, he wrote me back, and it was the beginning of some deep healing for us.

Before now, I'd never made a connection between that letter and my collecting homeless signs. Maybe there's always been a part of me that is homeless; the part of me that spent my entire childhood being so vigilant and afraid of my father, yearning for safety, comfort and peace.

In my early experiences with the homeless, I struggled with the unfairness of the lives people are born into: the physical, mental and psychological handicaps, the abuse and the trauma. I avoided eye contact with those on the street, unwilling to really "see" them, and in doing so avoided seeing parts of myself. Now, years later, I'm aware of those aspects of my life I wanted to deny: the abuse, the fear, the illusions I had about my own home and upbringing.

Back in those early years, I had no idea what type of art I wanted to make with these signs. I painted on some, drew on some, covered a wall in my apartment with them. As the years passed, I kept buying them, patiently, diligently.

At the time, I owned an advertising agency in downtown Dallas. Occasionally, we'd arrive to work to find a homeless man sleeping near our front door. I even had homeless signs up in my office.

In 2006 I sold the company, which was a huge event in my life, since the people I worked with were like my second family in many ways. Another home of sorts that was going away. After some soul searching, which included a magical trip to South Africa, I enrolled in grad school, and it was while I was pursuing an MFA in Arts and Technology that I would begin to figure out the art I was supposed to be making.

My professors were very excited about my homeless sign collection, and encouraged me to explore it as the basis for a possible body of work. And boy, did I. After exploring countless directions, and some juicy critiques, I had my first ever solo art show in the fall of 2009. I was very proud of the work, which included digital prints, some homeless signs mounted on mirrors, a single sign suspended from the ceiling in the center of the gallery, signs mounted on the floor and a 12 minute video of signs dissolving from one to another to the soundtrack of a car moving through traffic. The show also featured a homeless man that I hired for the evening to walk around the gallery holding a sign while he chatted with the guests.

When I think about that show now, I realize that in many ways, I was finally home. I'd been raised in a house where art was never discussed. My mom was a housewife, my dad was an insurance adjuster, and I don't know that either of them ever set foot in a museum or a gallery in their lives. Even though I drew all the time as a child, they didn't know how to encourage me. So here I was, having just turned 50, in the middle of my first solo art show, surrounded by gobs of friends, doing something I'd dreamed of doing for a long time.

When that show came down, I figured I was done with homeless signs. Silly me.

I was taking a class on interventionist art. Art that in some way disrupts daily life, like flash mobs or the art happenings that originated in the late 1950s. Of course the first thought to occur to me was a big group of people at a crowded intersection all holding homeless signs. Thus, "We Are All Homeless" was born.

The first gathering of this type occurred at a key intersection in central Dallas. We handed out cards to people driving by, directing them to a website, where they could learn more about the project and find links to homeless shelters in the area. The cards featured different sayings all relating to home. One said, "If you were homeless, you'd be home now." Another said, "Home is where the heart is." We've now done three of these gatherings, including one where we all dressed in costume and handed out dollar bills with the web address written on them.

It appears these signs are a part of me now. I keep buying them, and the ideas for artworks keep coming. And I'm ok with that. My sister and I are working on our second homeless quilt, and I just launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund a coast to coast sign buying adventure.

I'm still fascinated by the notion of "home." Is it a physical place, a building, a house? Is it a sense of safety, of being provided for? And what does it mean to be homeless: practically, spiritually, emotionally?

I now see these homeless signs as signposts of my own journey, both inward and outward. Of reconciling my childhood and my life with my beliefs about home and the homeless. Glinda, the good witch in The Wiz said it best: "When we know ourselves, we're always home."

By the way, my favorite homeless sign? "Vibrator outta batteries. Urgent. Please help!"

About Willie Baronet

Willie BaronetWillie Baronet is the former owner and creative director of GroupBaronet (now MasonBaronet). His advertising and design work has been featured in Communication Arts, Graphis, AIGA Graphic Design Annual, New York Art Directors Annual, The One Show (publication and exhibit), Print Casebooks, Annual Report Trends, The Type Directors Club Annual and Annual Report Design: A Historical Retrospective 1510-1990 (publication and exhibit), organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design.

His print and broadcast work has received numerous medals from the Dallas Advertising League’s Tops Show, the Dallas Society of Visual Communications and the Houston Art Directors Club. In 1999, he was one of the jurors for the Communication Arts Illustration Annual.

In 2013, Baronet was named an AIGA Fellow for making a significant contribution to raising the standards of excellence in practice and conduct within our design community. This is the highest honor an AIGA chapter can bestow upon one of its senior-level members.