By Leah Spoolstra – Collegiate Staff
At the end of the corridor at Devos Performance Hall, there is a line of 200 signs that Willie Baronet has bought from homeless people, titled “We Are All Homeless.”
The collection started as a personal project in 1993, when Baronet felt uncomfortable around homeless people panhandling for money.
“In the beginning, I didn’t like that I was averting my eyes,” Baronet said. “I didn’t have a cellphone to pretend that I was on, so I pretended that I was on the radio. I didn’t like how that felt. It happened enough times that I finally realized that I should do something else.”
After receiving a master in fine arts and technology at the University of Texas in Dallas, Baronet worked in graphic design and advertising. Currently, Baronet is a creativity and portfolio professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Since 1993, Baronet has collected approximately 1,400 signs
from over 30 states and seven countries. While “We Are All Homeless” has been on exhibit in several cities, this is Baronet’s first submission in ArtPrize. Eventually, Baronet hopes to place all of the signs in a line that would extend across a half a mile in length.
Baronet encourages people to acknowledge homeless people and do what they feel is right.
“I think if people would just smile and make eye contact, it could make a difference,” Baronet said. “I hope that more people will see that human being there and just acknowledge them, even if you don’t give them anything.”
When he meets a homeless person, Baronet said that he never judges them or their needs.
“At some point, I finally realized that it’s not my place to judge somebody on what they need and what’s right for them,” Baronet said. “A lot of (homeless) people who have mental illnesses are often unable to get medications and the care that they need. For them, drugs and alcohol may be the closest thing that they have to medication. It’s not great, but it might keep them alive.”
When he began to buy signs, Baronet said that his interactions with homeless people changed.
“I was fascinated by the signs,” Baronet said with a smile. “From the first time that I bought a sign, everything changed about the dynamics between me and them. I got to shake their hand and find out their name.”
In 2016, Baronet’s documentary titled “Signs of Humanity” premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival and has been accepted into seven other festivals. The film took Baronet, a filmmaker and two producers on a 24-day trip through 31 cities across the United States, in which they bought signs from and interviewed homeless people.
While filming “Signs of Humanity” in July 2014, Baronet bought a sign from Eddie Dunn for $20. Then, in Feb. 2016, Dunn saw an image of his sign in Baronet’s speech about the documentary. In response, Dunn contacted Baronet and said that he was off the streets, quit his heroin addiction, reconnected with his children, and had a job.
While Baronet displayed “We Are All Homeless” in Philadelphia, he reconnected with Dunn. When Dunn went to the exhibit, he cried at the sight of his sign on the wall.
Dunn grew up in Kensington, Pennsylvania, which is known for drugs and crime. When he was 19, Dunn paid for his heroin addiction with the money from panhandling. While on the streets, Dunn wished that people had been more polite to him.
Dunn said that there is a stigma about how people become homeless.
“Homelessness is viewed as an epidemic, yet it has always been this way,” Dunn said in a phone interview.. “They see people outside asking for money and see it as an eyesore. There’s a stigma. The average person thinks (homeless people) get to a point that they’re set up.”
Dunn was taken aback when Baronet offered to buy his sign, which reads, “Something to ponder: what if God occasionally visits Earth disguised as a homeless guy panhandling to see how charitable we are? Completely hypothetical, of course.”
“What are the odds?” Dunn said. “I was in disbelief that someone wanted to buy my sign. I think the idea of (“We Are All Homeless”) perpetuates and educates people to become aware about homeless people.”
Since the release of “Signs of Humanity,” no other homeless people have contacted Baronet.
“It’s heartbreaking because I never know what people’s situations are,” Baronet said. “People don’t choose (homelessness). They don’t say that they want to stand in the hot sun or snow and then sleep under a bridge.”
If “We Are All Homeless” won ArtPrize, Baronet said that he would use the money to distribute “Signs of Humanity” and launch a YouTube channel with clips of interviews that were cut from the documentary.
Baronet hopes that “We Are All Homeless” will inspire people to smile at people on the streets.
“If I won, I think that I’d faint on the side of the road,” Baronet said. “I hope that people won’t be on autopilot. From an action standpoint, I hope that people will smile at a few people on the streets. People should do what they feel in their heart. For some people, that might be waving and smiling, giving them money, or handing out a bottle of water.”
Baronet said that every sign has its own story and that he will buy a sign from anyone.
“Send me the sign and I will pay you back,” Baronet said. “I make that deal with everyone. I want to hear your experience of buying the sign, because it changes everything. It is as if suddenly I’m having a conversation. That’s one reason that I’m here. You never know if somebody will see this and want to get involved.”
While reading the signs, several onlookers became emotional. When Bonnie Wells, one of the spectators, read the signs, she was astonished by Baronet’s collection.
“You never know,” Wells said. “People come from all walks of life and have different circumstances. People who never dreamed of being on the streets, sometimes, end up on the streets.”
Baronet said that he will continue to buy signs from homeless
“If you would have told me that 24 years later that I would still be doing this, I would have said that you are out of your mind,” Baronet said. “But, I can’t stop.”
For “We Are All Homeless” information, click here.