Willie Baronet began buying signs in 1993 as a way of confronting his conflicted feelings about homelessness and whether he should give panhandlers money. Having spent most of his career on the creative side of advertising, he was moved by the lettering and the patina of the signs. Early on, he knew he would use the signs for art, although he wasn’t totally sure how.
After more than two decades, 15 art shows, and 1,200 signs, the Dallas resident is at the center of a feature-length documentary capturing his cross-country, sign-buying tour. The trip took 31 days, and Baronet and the film crew stopped in 24 cities from Seattle to New York City, shooting more than 200 hours of footage.
Buying signs from the homeless is a fairly simple idea, but it’s resonated with many. Baronet’s Upworthy video, a sort-of trailer for the documentary, has been viewed more than 5 million times, and more than 60,000 people have shared it on Facebook. Baronet’s work, “We Are All Homeless,” an installation of his purchased signs, was recently displayed in Dallas at One Arts Plaza. I talked with Baronet about the documentary, which will be released this fall, and his cross-country trip – the culmination of a decades-long project.
He traveled across the country buying signs from the homeless and created something that he hopes helps the world see their humanity. A story told by HooplaHa.
Posted by Upworthy on Monday, August 31, 2015
Why do you think your particular project resonates so much with people? That is a really good question. For some people it’s because they are like me, and they feel guilty and struggle with, “What should I do? Am I a bad person? Are they going to use the money for something I don’t believe in?” There are other people that have a really personal connection to homelessness. Maybe a family member or a friend, perhaps they themselves had to spend some time couch surfing. I certainly heard from a lot of people that said they were taught to ignore them. Other people say, “I just assumed they were all lazy scammers and now having heard some of your stories, I now realize that’s not the case; there are people legitimately who need my help.”
How did you get the idea to do a cross-country tour and film it? I did a talk at TEDxSMU about the project (“We Are All Homeless”). At the end of that talk I said, “One day I hope to maybe apply for a grant and travel across the country buying signs.” I really hadn’t thought beyond saying it. And then I realized having said it, and that it was on the Internet, I probably should do it.
I called my friend Tim Chumley who is one of the four people who went across the country with me. One of the things we had to do was come up with incentives for the people who were going to contribute. [We decided] we could make…this little mini documentary. [As] we were nearing the end of the fundraising, we had about $13,000 left to raise, I sent a Facebook message to a friend of mine named David Kiger, who is the CEO of Worldwide Express. He responded in probably 20 minutes and said, ” I will fund the rest of your campaign, but I want you to make this a feature-length documentary… I really believe in this.” He’s one of the angels to drop out of the sky.
I want to hear about the experience of traveling across the U.S. What was that like? If I had to put it in one word it would be “overwhelming.” It was physically exhausting, and emotionally exhausting, and emotionally gratifying. It was a constant state of having to stay present and really be focused on who I was talking to, especially with the folks that are carrying the signs. Ultimately if they agree to do an interview on camera…My job was to be safe for them, and to really honor their space, honor their requests. Just to respect them as people.
I think sometimes people want to make it about me. I’m happy to be a conduit, [but] what’s compelling is the people holding the signs and the signs themselves and the conversations that happen. Even the small shifts that people have in terms of compassion or empathy for people in the street, I think that’s important enough to spend time and energy on.
What are the incidences or stories that stood out to you the most? God, there’s so many. Michael, in Omaha, had one leg. He is African-American and hangs out with a group of Lakota Native Americans. They all share any money or food that they get. Michael also happened to be a veteran, and he was a diabetic. While I was waiting to interview him, he needed to adjust his prosthetic leg and fell down. It was by far one of the most heart-wrenching conversations that I had. After that interview I lost it, completely. At a really deep level.
I got to meet [a] woman [in Baltimore] named Patty Lee. She was homeless much of her own life. Patty, who’s now 50-something, spends her days and nights distributing clothes and condoms and toys to mostly under-aged girls who are living on the streets — some of whom are actively working as prostitutes to survive. We got to drive around with her and watch Patty just sling that door of the van open and yell out to people. Some of them were young girls that would come over with their pimps, and she would hand out stuff to them. To me, Patty is a true hero.
I talked to a 78-year-old woman named Dinell in Albuquerque who’s been on the streets for two-and-a-half years with her son and their two cats. They sleep in a park. There aren’t any shelters in Albuquerque that take pets, and she’s not willing to give up her cats. She was just full of spunk and sharp as a tack. She told me: “If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to start my own homeless shelter for people who have pets who need a place to sleep.” Turns out that the Bridge here in Dallas has a kennel for some of their guests who happen to have pets. I’m constantly blown away by all the services the Bridge offers.
Do you have a story you could share with me that you didn’t share elsewhere? One of the signs at the exhibit for One Arts Plaza says “F— U, Pay Me.” That is a sign I bought in San Francisco, very near Fisherman’s Wharf, from a young guy. I would estimate he was 25. He said his name was Michael. When I went up to him I did not know what to expect given his sign. I asked him, “Hey man…what made you come up with a sign like that?” And he said, “You know this sign works a lot better with young people. Most of them laugh and give me money.” I just thought it was funny. He was totally friendly. I didn’t perceive any aggression, even though his sign was aggressive. He looked pretty unkempt, long hair and unshaven, but just a huge smile on his face.
It’s such an interesting cross-section of humanity. You’re really seeing all of it. You’ve said you’ve got to have a really thick skin to be out there on the street and be ignored everyday. And it’s not just the ignoring. It’s also that they have to put up with abuse. In Pittsburgh, there’s a man who’s probably in his mid-60s. A car pulled up with some young boys in it, and [they] shot him in the face with a pellet gun, in his eye. His interview is the most horrific story about life on the street that I’ve heard.
Did he lose his eye? He did not. He did tell me the pellet is still in his head. I think he did lose some vision. It was a really traumatic experience for him.
Is violence like that common? It’s fairly common that people on the streets are robbed and beat up and mistreated. There were a fair number of people who would share stories about friends that had endured something like that, or even had passed away while on the street. I didn’t hear any firsthand accounts that were quite as startling as that man in Pittsburgh.
What do you think prompts people to be very unkind and in some cases violent? What I know about myself and believe about most people, when I make up a story about someone on the street without knowing anything about them, the story that I make up says much more about me than it does about them. It may be because I want to alleviate the guilt that I feel so that I can live with myself for not helping out. And the rudeness or the harsh things they might say, I think that’s really simply a way for them to feel better about themselves. It’s not a great strategy.
A message I try to get across to people who are housed…is to not beat yourself up because you may not have time to help out or give money. That whatever you choose, be kind to yourself, because I really do believe that that’s where it begins. If I can be kind with myself, in all likelihood I’ll get better at being kind to others. Maybe I’ll realize that simply smiling and waving in itself can be a tremendous acknowledgement of someone else’s humanity.
Where can people watch the documentary? We are still in the process of figuring that out. In the next three to four weeks we’ll have a better idea.
What is next for you after the documentary is released? There are already some exhibits that are scheduled and some additional speaking opportunities. The Bridge is having its big fundraiser, and I’m going to be their keynote speaker. I’m working on homeless jewelry. Each piece of jewelry will feature a miniaturized homeless sign on cardboard that is from an actual homeless sign. The idea of them being part of jewelry is kind of unsettling. My sister and I have collaborated on two quilts [that] are replicating an actual homeless sign. At some point we’d [like to] have 20 or 30 quilts that could all be displayed somewhere along with the signs. It’s personally, just very heartwarming for me to work on something with my sister.
Will you keep buying signs? Yes. No question. In fact, in one of the rough cuts of the documentary the last shot is me asking to buy a sign again. That feels right.
This Q&A was condensed and edited for clarity.