Since 1993 I’ve been buying and collecting homeless signs from people on the streets, in subways, under bridges, in cities near and far. It began from an awkwardness I felt when I’d pull up to an intersection and encounter a person holding a sign, asking for help. Like many people I wrestled with whether or not I was doing good by giving them money, wondered if they would spend the money on food or alcohol or drugs. Mostly I struggled with my moral obligations, and how my own choices contributed in conscious or unconscious ways to the poverty I was witnessing. I struggled with the unfairness of the lives people are born into, the physical, mental and psychological handicaps. And in my struggle I often avoided eye contact with those on the street, unwilling to really “see” them, and in doing so avoided seeing parts of myself.
All of that changed once I began asking them if they were willing to sell their signs. Immediately the dynamic changed between us, as we both had something the other wanted. I became very comfortable with the negotiations, and ultimately very comfortable in conversation with the homeless. I began to see them and hear them, and realized how vastly different they (and their stories) were. Some of my encounters were quite touching, and years later I can still remember many of them: the woman who cried telling me that the sign I’d bought had been made by her late husband, the many who asked me why I wanted the signs and were fascinated and inquisitive about using them in artwork, the very intoxicated man who wanted to autograph the sign before turning it over. My relationship to the homeless has been powerfully altered.
As a graphic designer for much of my professional career, I also marveled at the typography of the signs themselves, and the messages that were written. Wondering about the choices made by each person in the way they wrote, the size and legibility of the letters, the words they decided mattered enough to be on the signs. And occasionally the drawings, the humor, the typos.
I see the signs now as signposts of my own journey, inward and outward, of reconciling my life and my judgments with the plight of the homeless, and even with the notions of home, goodness, and compassion. Part of the passion that drives me to share this work with others is so that they too might examine their own.