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5:14 pm
Sun July 27, 2014

Handmade Signs From Homeless People Lead To Art, Understanding

Originally published on Sun July 27, 2014 6:52 pm

Artist Willie Baronet is on a 24-city, 31-day trek from Seattle, Wash. to New York City looking for supplies.

He's been buying handmade signs from homeless people for an art project called We Are All Homeless. Those signs are little more than a peripheral blur for many people. Baronet wants us to slow down, read them and understand.

"It really started because of my discomfort, my guilt, the way I felt, whenever I encountered a homeless person on the corner," he tells NPR's Eric Westervelt.

He has been purchasing and collecting homeless signs since 1993 and has incorporated them into artwork over the years. This is his first trip across the country. Baronet says he makes every attempt for them to set the price. The average price he has paid for a sign is $12, but he has paid as little as $4 and as much as $40.

Throughout his latest trip, there have been several memorable individuals. One was a veteran named Michael who lost one of his legs to diabetes. "He talked about his struggles trying to get help with the VA," Baronet says. "At the end I asked if I could take a photo with him ... he just pulled me really close, our faces were touching. I just felt a powerful connection with him."

Baronet has come across some funny signs during his trip. One that read, "Family attacked by ninjas, need help getting karate lessons." He noticed that Detroit was the only city on his trip where none of the signs he came across where humorous.

Baronet thinks there are some cities that have dealt with homelessness better than others. "There are cities that I think in their struggles with what to do about the homeless try to legislate them away and I just don't think that's possible, " he says. Laws in different cities affect things like where homeless can panhandle within a certain distance in an intersection and where they can sit on the streets.

"It's not us and them. It's just us," he says. "I used to think they were different than I am and I think a lot of us are just one or two bad decisions from being in the same place."

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Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Thanks for listening. It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Eric Westervelt.

Artist Willie Baronet is on a 24-city, 31-day trek from Seattle to New York City looking for supplies. His medium? He's been buying handmade signs from homeless people. Those signs are little more than a blur for many people. Baronet wants us to slow down, read them and understand. The art project is called We Are All Homeless. I caught up with Baronet toward the end of his trip, in Washington, D.C. and I asked what sparked his idea.

WILLIE BARONET: It really started because of my discomfort whenever I encountered a homeless person on the corner. I'd avert my eyes, I'd look away. And I think this idea occurred to me as a way to deal with that.

WESTERVELT: And you're paying homeless men and women for these signs. So what are they going for in, general? Is that a negotiation?

BARONET: I make every attempt to let them set the price. I've paid from $4 to $40 for a sign.

WESTERVELT: Some of the signs of heartbreaking. I mean, one sign asks, Have You Ever Felt Invisible Before? I mean, I know a lot of homeless people can go for weeks or even months without anyone calling them by their names. That's simple dignity that, you know, we all take for granted. You've been talking to homeless people all over the country. What stories have stood out for you?

BARONET: Wow. There are so many stories that stand out.

I met a guy in Omaha. His name was Michael. He had one leg, was a veteran. You know, he talked about his struggles, trying to get help with the VA, the fact that he'd lost his leg to diabetes and at the end, you know, I asked if I could take a photo with him. And I held up my camera, and you know, he just pulled me really close and our faces were touching and it was just - just really felt a powerful connection with him.

WESTERVELT: Do you remember what his sign said?

BARONET: I think it said something like, Disabled Vet Please Help.

WESTERVELT: I mean, other signs can be a little bit funny. I mean, I saw one that said, Why Lie - I Need A Beer.

BARONET: (Laughing). I've got signs that say, Family Attacked By Ninjas - Need Help Getting Karate Lessons.

WESTERVELT: That's an interesting one.

BARONET: So they're really all over the place. And you know, one of the things we noticed on this trip - there's only been one city, and that was Detroit, where not a single sign we bought was humorous.

WESTERVELT: There's down on their luck and then there's Detroit.

BARONET: Right.

WESTERVELT: Are you seeing big differences at all in some cities? Are some cities better than others in terms of helping the homeless?

BARONET: Yes. I think there are cities that, in their struggles with what to do about the homeless, tried to legislate them away. And I just don't think that's possible. Some of the laws are about whether they can panhandle within a certain distance of a major intersection, whether they're even allowed to sit on the streets. We were sitting down in Denver, talking to a couple of guys, and, you know, a city official walked up and said, you guys have to stand up. And they just couldn't sit down on this particular boulevard.

WESTERVELT: And what do you hope people see in these signs, Willie?

BARONET: I want them to just get that it's not us and them, it's just us. I used to think they were different than I am and I think we're - a lot of us - are just one or two bad decisions from being right in the same place.

WESTERVELT: That's artist Willie Baronet. He's wrapping up a month-long trek across the U.S. He's buying up handmade signs from homeless people. We'll include a few examples and a link to his blog at our website, npr.org.

Mr. Baronet, walk on, and thanks for coming in.

BARONET: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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