How do you react when you see a homeless person begging on the street? Seeing someone so disempowered and stripped of dignity can make us feel discomfort, dismay, and even disgust. While most people avert their gaze, a few make a quick contribution to the Styrofoam cup, and fewer still make eye contact, but it is the rare person who enters into conversation with his brother the beggar.
Willie Baronet is one of those rare souls. An artist, he has spent the last 21 years trekking across the United States conversing with, listening to—and doing business with—folks who are homeless. Troubled by his initial discomfort with the beggars he came across on his travels and wanting to address that discomfort, Baronet began approaching homeless folks and offering to purchase their cardboard signs. He's seen everything from "Please help—my wife just died—lost job—lost house—God bless" to "Why lie? Need a beer" to "I'm a disabled vet—can't walk —can't talk—can you please help me?"
He invites each person to set the value of the sign—he's paid between $4 and $40 for a single sign over the years—and these transactions almost always lead to conversation. This practice has given him a deep appreciation and fascination for people's stories, what words they put on their signs, and how they design them.
Baronet has used these signs in a variety of his art installations over the years. For his 2009 installation called Home? he probed the meaning of home, asking questions like "Is it a physical place, a building, a structure, a house? Is it a state of being, a sense of safety, of being provided for, of identity? And what does it mean to be homeless: practically, spiritually, emotionally?"
His most recent project is a documentary following his 31-day, 24-city journey to create the installation called We Are All Homeless. As stated on the project's website: "The purpose of the project is to raise awareness about homelessness and to change the preconceived ideas many people have about the homeless and their situations." Learn more.