In an art studio in Dallas, Texas, Willie Baronet has amassed more than 1,100 individual pieces of cardboard, each bought from the hands of homeless men and women across America. The 56-year-old’s collection varies from the colourful and creative to washed out and weathered, adorned with messages ranging from hopeful and harrowing to humorous.
A former advertising company owner turned university professor, Baronet started buying the signs in 1993. “It was a way for me to deal with my discomfort when I saw someone holding a sign,” he tells The Big Issue. “Like many people I would avert my eyes and ignore them. Buying the sign was a way to change that dynamic and start a conversation. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.”
Since then, Baronet has transformed his incredible collection into a series of art installations, under the banner We Are All Homeless. He wanted to raise awareness, and alter perceptions, of homelessness. “I realised this project had the opportunity to start many conversations and possibly cause some people to think more deeply about how compassionate we are with each other.”
I realised this project had the opportunity to start many conversations
Fast-forward to 2014 and Baronet, alongside film-maker Tim Chumley, set off on a 24-city, 31-day cross-country trip, from Seattle to New York. After raising $48,000 via crowdfunding, they travelled 7,620 miles, bought 282 signs and interviewed more than 100 people they met along the way. Their journey has been brought to life in the film Signs of Humanity, which premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival last month.
Baronet has, he admits, questioned whether this is exploitative. “I’ve struggled with that. I try my best to be very kind and respectful about the interaction. I don’t photograph or video anyone without their permission.”
Indeed, he always asks for the individual to set the price. Most signs sell for around $10 to $20 but he has paid anything between $4 and $50. In total, Baronet estimates he’s spent $13,000. “Very few haven’t been willing to sell their signs but some have,” he explains. “I don’t always know why. Some wanted more money than I was willing to spend. The most I’ve ever paid was $50 in New York to a man who had no legs and couldn’t speak.”
Travelling across America and speaking day in, day out with his home nation’s most disenfranchised men and women, Baronet hopes that the US has now opened its eyes to a homelessness crisis. “Cities have realised that you can’t legislate the homeless out of existence.”
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Michael in Omaha (above)
Michael is a Vietnam veteran with one leg. He was one of the most powerful interviews I had while on the trip.
Elli in Baltimore (above)
Elli was the youngest person I bought a sign from. Her sign had a photo of her younger brother on it. Elli speaks five languages and is from Romania. When I met her she was 17.
Owen in Portland (above)
Owen told me that when he first got to Portland, he had about 60 different coloured Sharpies that he used to write his signs. But he had given almost all of them away and was down to his last two. He had some very creative signs, including one of the face of Mr Pringle. He also had a dog that he had trained to jump up on the back of his neck.
Cheryl in Detroit (above)
Cheryl is the only person to reach in my car and hug my neck after selling her sign. She was such a sweet woman with a genuine spirit.