“What does home mean to you,” Willie asked, sitting cross-legged on State Street, Chicago, a heavily foot-trafficked area with an overspill of opulence from the shops on Michigan Ave.
“I guess San Diego,” Shane said hesitantly. “Somewhere warm. Somewhere where I’m happy. I’ve had a roof over my head before, and I wasn’t happy.”
Willie Baronet, an artist and advertising professor in Dallas, had just purchased homeless signs from Austin and Shane, two men who currently live on the streets of Chicago. Willie’s on a 30-day, cross-country road trip from Seattle to New York, buying up homeless signs and exploring the meaning of ‘home.’ He’s been buying signs from the homeless for over 20 years, but this is the first time he’s made a cross-country trip, with the help of a successful crowd-funding campaign, which raised nearly $48,000.
Willie has been buying signs from the homeless since 1993, a campaign he now calls ‘We Are All Homeless.’ He estimates he’s purchased about 700 signs and has spent around $7,000 (the typical sign going for $10-$20). What began as a way for him to approach homeless and ease the general discomfort he felt when seeing the homeless, has morphed into an art project of extreme proportions that challenges misperceptions and seeks to stimulate a more conscious, perhaps more compassionate, society.
And Willie’s interested in more than just the sign itself. He’s interested in the stories. “This trip has been eye-opening,” Willie said. “Before, I was mostly buying the signs from my car window. Now I have the time to sit down and really listen.” Willie has been accompanied by a film crew that’s making a documentary about the experience.
After purchasing Shane and Austin’s signs, he sits down to talk. You can’t help but be drawn to the tall and effortlessly endearing man. As soon as he sits down and begins talking to someone, he has a way of connecting with them as if they are the most special, most important person in the world in that moment.
Austin and Shane talked candidly about the fluidity of homelessness. Austin had been homeless for just 3 months, and Shane for 2 years. But even in his relatively short time living on the streets, Austin has learned so much about the state of homelessness in Chicago. He spoke about the homeless that lived beneath Lower Wacker, the racial divide that can be seen on the streets and a man named Jose, a seemingly iconic homeless man who sat (on the day we were there) outside Macy’s with his rooster, Garfield.
"Home is a place we all must find, child. It’s not just a place where you eat or sleep. Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere."
-Glinda, The Wiz
One of the hardest parts about the nearly total immersion Willie has experienced, he says, is that juxtaposition across cities; the clear divide between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. It was apparent in Las Vegas, too. The disparity between the Las Vegas Strip, an area inundated with money, and the homeless hot-spots just a couple blocks away, was difficult to see.
And when something’s difficult to see, people tend to simply look away, to ignore the situation. Something Willie said he found himself doing, too, prior to 1993. There’s a general unease, not knowing how to help or confront the situation.
Shane and Austin also spoke about people’s tendency to look away. “I know a guy who fell asleep once and woke up to find $20 in his cup. You seriously can make more money asleep than awake,” Shane said.
“People don’t want to make eye-contact with the homeless,” Austin added. “I put my head down when people pass, because you’re more likely to get money that way. It’s like, ‘Oh, no. Don’t look at the homeless man.’”
It’s this general uneasiness of the homeless that enticed Willie to begin buying signs in the first place. He felt the visceral reaction we all tend to feel when we approach something we don’t understand: to turn away.
Willie (right) speaks with Shane (left) and Austin (center) on State Street, Chicago, about what home really means. (Photo: Michelle Burwell)
Willie purchased 18 signs on his first day in Chicago. But if homelessness is a conversation, purchasing the signs is just the artful conversation starter for Willie. Its a way to catalyze conversation, and to help other people feel more comfortable approaching the homeless themselves. Willie encourages others to purchase signs of their own and mail them to him.
“People tend to put the homeless in a box,” Willie said. “Whether it’s ‘They’re all on drugs,’ or ‘They’re all making 60,000 a year.’ People feel more comfortable grouping them all together” It’s like everything in life. If you don’t know what to make of it, or it’s hard to look at, you make up your own narrative to ease your own mind. Categorizing all homeless as drug-addicts, may make it easier for some to excuse their inaction and feelings of guilt.
But from listening to the individual stories, Willie has come to realize that the divide between the homeless and those who aren’t homeless isn’t so vast. People often say, “We’re all just one bad decision from homelessness.” Which seems similar to what Willie’s saying; that we all have a story, and stories aren’t one-dimensional. There’s many more parts to a story than what first meets the eye.
You get a sense that people like Willie, the dogged people most determined to do everything they can to help, never actually feel like they’re doing enough. But Willie has since come to terms with the fact that he is only one person, doing all that he can do.
“There are certain people, working on solutions for homelessness that inspire me, like one person I met who runs a bread truck and drives food into homeless areas, but this is what I can do. I can create an awareness and start a conversation,” Willie said. When Willie returns to Dallas, he’s orchestrating an art exhibit with the signs he’s purchased from his trip.
“These signs – and this practice – have become a catalyst for conversations about the nature of home, homelessness, compassion, and how we see and treat each other as humans,” Willie wrote in his crowd-funding campaign. It’s profoundly changed the way he interacts with the homeless, and he hopes the campaign can do the same for others.
Though he’s experienced the feelings of extreme desperation that one may associate with homelessness, Willie says he’s also experienced inspiring fortitude, humor, honesty, sincerity and hope. And, perhaps mostly importantly, he’s learned that ‘home’ is different to everyone. To some people, it may be a roof, to others it could mean a friendship or a place where the sun shines.
In Willie’s TEDx talk last year, he quoted Glinda from the Wiz: ”Home is a place we all must find, child. It’s not just a place where you eat or sleep. Home is knowing. Knowing your mind, knowing your heart, knowing your courage. If we know ourselves, we’re always home, anywhere.”