TAI Creative Advertising Professor Willie Baronet has been purchasing and collecting homeless signs from people across the country since 1993. Over the last twenty-three years he has collected over 1,000 signs. For years, Professor Baronet has displayed these homeless signs in exhibits all across the country in his art project “WE ARE ALL HOMELESS.” This past April, his project was turned into a documentary following Professor Baronet’s 31-day cross-country trip buying homeless signs in 24 cities.
The documentary, “Signs of Humanity,” was released in April, and has since been accepted into several film festivals across the country, including the 2016 Dallas International Film Festival and the Chain Film Festival. The film will be playing at the UNAFF 2016 International Documentary Film Festival in San Francisco on Thursday, October 27, and the Unspoken Human Rights Film Festival in Utica, New York on Friday, October 28.
Although Professor Baronet has been collecting signs for over twenty years, this was the first time he had done something so concentrated.
“[The documentary] was the first time I did such in depth interviews with folks on the street,” Professor Baronet said. “And the media attention from the trip helped to make it clear how many people struggle with what to do when they see someone with a sign, and often have mixed feelings about what to do. I began to realize this project helped some people voice those concerns and have conversations they might not otherwise have.”
“Signs of Humanity” has given Professor Baronet an amazing platform to voice the issue of homelessness and find a way to help. In making the film, Professor Baronet and the other filmmakers partnered with many organizations that help homeless people.
“Help USA sponsored the exhibit in New York at the end of the documentary,” Professor Baronet said. “They also sponsored exhibits at both political conventions this summer in Cleveland and Philly. Maria Cuomo Cole, the chairman of Help USA, is also an activist and filmmaker and has been a big supporter of this project. The Bridge has also been a big supporter, and I also spoke at their annual fundraiser in 2015. They helped sponsor events around our premiere at the Dallas International Film Festival as well. I’ve also partnered with Stewpot and the Housing Crisis Center on projects in the past. All of these organizations are doing great work for the homeless.”
Although Professor Baronet didn’t document many of his early encounters purchasing homeless signs, he remembers quite a few people that have stuck out to him over the years.
“There was a woman who sold me a sign that her late husband had made,” Professor Baronet said. “There was a man in Austin who wanted to talk about art and his relationship with his father. Michael in Omaha was a veteran missing one leg, who I had a powerful connection to. Cheryl in Detroit is the only person so happy that I was buying her sign that she reached in the car and hugged my neck. Elli in Baltimore was only 17; she was Romanian and spoke five languages, so full of promise and doing what she could to take care of her family.”
One person in particular Professor Baronet has kept in contact with is a man named Eddie who he met in Philadelphia.
“Eddie had a sign that said ‘What if God occasionally visits Earth disguised as a homeless person panhandling to see how charitable we are. Completely hypothetical of course.’” Professor Baronet said. “Eddie and I have become friends, and I’ve reconnected with him twice in Philly. He is a former heroin addict, and now is working and sponsoring others in AA. He and I spoke together on a panel at the opening of a ‘WE ARE ALL HOMELESS’ exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania in September of 2016.”
Over his years of collecting homeless signs, Professor Baronet has gained a new perspective on the meaning of “home.”
“I’ve gotten a deeper understanding about what ‘home’ means, to me and to others,” Professor Baronet said. “I’ve learned that we all share many of the pains and privileges of the human experience. Holding a sign on the street is simply asking for help, something I’ve had to do many times in the course of my life. And I’m lucky to have friends and family as a safety net when I need something.”
Professor Baronet hopes his documentary can take away some of the preconceived notions surrounding the homeless.
“It can be easy to put people in boxes based on judgments we may make,” Professor Baronet said. “Even waving and smiling and seeing the humanity in each other can change the dynamic between the housed and those on the streets.”