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Art project looks to challenge perceptions about the homeless

Willie Baronet displays some of the signs he has purchased from homeless people as part of his "We Are All Homeless" project. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Willie Baronet displays some of the signs he has purchased from homeless people as part of his “We Are All Homeless” project. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Willie Baronet stops his car alongside a panhandler on a busy Northeast Heights street corner Friday afternoon. The man holds a sign that reads simply, “Please Help.”

“Would you sell me your sign?” Baronet asks.

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“Sure,” the man says, quickly agreeing to Baronet’s offer of $10.

An artist and advertising professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Baronet is on a 24-city journey in which he connects with homeless people and buys their handmade signs. As part of his “We Are All Homeless” project, the signs will be used in art installations, while his cross-country trek is being chronicled by a documentary film crew and material is being gathered for a book.

The purpose of his project, he said, is to raise awareness about homelessness in America, be a resource for people who want to reach out to this population and “change the preconceived notions” many of us have about people who live on the streets.

“It’s about awareness and compassion,” Baronet says. “The reason it’s called ‘We Are All Homeless’ is because it’s not us and them – it’s just us. If it wouldn’t be for certain circumstances, I or any of my friends could be in that situation. So it’s really about seeing these people as people, regardless if you give them money or food or anything else. Simply acknowledging them as humans is the big take-away for me.”

Kenneth Figone would certainly appreciate the acknowledgement. He was recently standing on a traffic island near Juan Tabo and Indian School NE holding a sign saying he needed money to get a flat tire on his vehicle repaired. “Someone from a passing car threw a lit cigarette butt at me, which went under the collar of my shirt and down my back and began burning me,” he said.

Friday morning, Figone and his homeless mother, Dinell Murphy, were resting in the relative safety of Robinson Park at 8th Street and Central Avenue Downtown. A shopping cart overflowed with about 100 pounds of their earthly possessions, which include two cats.

Murphy, who has COPD and asthma, willingly accepted $20 from Baronet in exchange for her sign, which says on one side: “I am short $8 for an inhaler. Please help if you can.” The other reads: “Homeless with tent. Need a place to put it one night. Can you help?”

Figone smiles at the notion of someone buying his sign for an art project. “Sounds interesting, and slightly confusing.”

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Murphy, however, completely gets it. “I think it’s awesome,” she says. “So many people don’t realize just how many people need help.”

Artist and SMU professor Willie Baronet, left, shows the sign he just bought for $10 from homeless woman Dinell Murphy, who was relaxing in Robinson Park on Friday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Artist and SMU professor Willie Baronet, left, shows the sign he just bought for $10 from homeless woman Dinell Murphy, who was relaxing in Robinson Park on Friday. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Baronet has long realized the scope of the problem. Since 1993, he has purchased more than 600 signs from the homeless, paying from $4 to $40 for each, he says. “I think it sprang out of my own discomfort and guilt about how I felt every time I ignored someone on a corner or averted my eyes.”

About 2008, he began using the signs as an element in public performance art dramatizations and later in art gallery installations.

While leading a TEDx program at SMU in 2012 on the homeless, Baronet came up with the idea of the cross-country journey to purchase homeless people’s signs and call attention to the larger problem of homelessness in America. A crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo was subsequently launched, raising $48,000 for the project, he says.


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