On the 579-North off-ramp onto East Ohio Street on Pittsburgh's North Side, Willie Baronet spots a man holding a sign: "Homeless and Hungry Anything Helps." He beeps the horn, rolls down the window and asks if the man would be willing to sell the sign.
"Would I sell you my sign?" the man asks skeptically.
"Yeah, it's for an art project," Baronet answers.
Negotiations ensue. After Baronet offers up a $20 bill, the man, who introduces himself as Steve, answers, "Yes sir!"
"Some people are unbelievably enthusiastic and energetic," Baronet says of the numerous similar transactions he's made over the years. "I've had guys flipping off the cars behind me when they started blowing their horns because they wanted to keep talking, which I love. I really do love the conversations."
On July 23 and 24, Baronet, a Dallas-based artist joined by a documentary film crew and a local guide drove around Pittsburgh as part of a 31-day trek across America to buy homeless peoples' signs. For an average of $15 a pop, Baronet buys the signs and creates various art installations — fixing them to walls, hanging them from ceilings, creating digital iterations and even placing them next to mirrors so people can see themselves as they read the signs.
"I think it's easy for people to put the homeless in a box and make up stories about why they're homeless," Baronet says. "They've had tough circumstances. I've had tough circumstances. I used to think of it as us and them, and after 21 years, I'm so clear that it's just us. "
That's why Baronet is calling this current project "We Are All Homeless." He says he started buying the signs as a way to deal with his guilty feelings whenever he saw this situation on the streets.
Counting this trip, he said he's collected about 800 signs since 1993. Three of the most recent ones came from Pittsburgh's North Side — the other two read "Homeless and Hungry / 2 Honest 2 Steal," and "Homeless God Bless."
This is not Baronet's day job. He's a former advertising executive who teaches creativity and design as part of the advertising program at Dallas' Southern Methodist University. In fact, he loses money on his art.
"I think I sold two digital prints, but I've spent over $10,000 on both signs and production of digital prints, so I'm way in the hole," Baronet says. "But I'm OK with that."
Baronet crowd-funded this trip on Indiegogo and will use additional private donations to fund the art installations. He says he's over his $3,200 sign budget this trip, and he still has a week to go. "That part I'm kind of excited about," he says. "I want to buy as many signs as I can."
Forty dollars is the most he's ever paid for a sign.
"In Austin, there was a woman who was super-clear that she needed 40 dollars before she could leave the street, and I believed her," he recalls. It wasn't about what the sign said — in fact, he can't remember. "She just said, 'I have kids, and I need $40 to get off this highway median.'" He says $25 is usually his limit. "In Las Vegas, a guy on the Strip said right away that he needed $150 for his sign, and I told him I couldn't afford that. So I gave him five bucks, and we talked for a while, but that was out of my price range."
Baronet said most of the time people are willing to sell. Last week in Detroit, a woman named Cheryl reached through his car window and hugged him.
But, there've been sad days on this trip, too. Baronet bought a sign from a guy in his 20s in Cincinnati. "He said, 'I will do anything, including prostituting myself, to get heroin.' He was unbelievably clear about his agenda, and it was heartbreaking," Baronet explains.
Baronet ideally wants to present this installation in every city he visited this summer. The first installation is slated for Dallas in November, the month of several homelessness-awareness events.
"There are clearly people who are struggling with psychological disorders, and addiction issues, and I don't think it's my place to judge what they're doing," Baronet says. "... The majority of the people, I am very clear, are in pretty dire straits."