L AFAYETTE — Willie Baronet is not quite sure why he started buying signs from homeless people in the 1990s, but his growing collection of handmade, mostly cardboard creations has transformed into a project he hopes will bring public attention to a population that is often ignored.
The 54-year-old Lafayette native’s unusual interest attracted national attention this summer when he took a monthlong, 7,620-mile trip from Seattle to New York, buying 292 signs — averaging $16 apiece — and pushing his collection to more than 800.
Baronet, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette graduate who works as an artist and professor in Dallas, is using the signs and footage from his summer experience as building blocks for art exhibits, a book and a documentary that he hopes could help change the public perception of the homeless.
There was a time when a much younger Baronet felt uncomfortable about the homeless and their plight.
“I think I felt some guilt,” Baronet said. “It was easier not to look at them and not to make eye contact and witness their situations.”
Even today, Baronet said, “some people still aren’t sure what to do. I know a lot of people look away.”
But for 31 days, Baronet witnessed the homeless up close.
He took a 15-minute walk with an elderly widower who still mourned his wife’s passing and sat with an animal lover whose goal was to buy two lottery tickets a week in the hopes of winning enough money to create a shelter for homeless people and their pets.
There was a man in his 20s who didn’t hesitate to tell Baronet that he would do anything for his next heroin fix, including prostituting himself, and the homeless grandmother trying to provide for the two young girls in her stead.
And always there were the signs:
“VIET-NAM DONE This To Me! CAN YOU HelP”
While many of the signs are heart-wrenching, there also is humor.
“98¢ SHORT ON WIFE’S RANSOM”
“WIFE AND DOG KIDNAPPED BY NINJA’S NEED $$ FOR KUNG FU LESSONS I’D REALLY LIKE THAT DOG BACK!”
Reflecting on his trip, Baronet said the public always was curious as to what was going on when they saw the cameras and him carrying on long conversations with the homeless.
He believes some people probably thought he was crazy, and some people thought it was a cool project.
“And some, I don’t know what they think,” Baronet said.
For Baronet, one of the trip’s biggest gifts is the “constant reminder of what I have to be thankful for.”
Talking to the homeless, day in and day out, reminded Baronet “how much I got and how lucky I am.”