April 2013, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA

Name: Mike a.k.a. “The Pope of Harvard Square”

Read Mike’s story here

Artists Kenji Nakayama & Christopher Hope have started a “Homeless Sign Exchange”. They pay homeless people for their original signs (I don’t know how much) and then do a sign makeover.

The end result is the homeless person’s words in stylized typography on a shiny new sign. Basically , a sign any hipster would be proud to display.

April 2013, Davis Square, Somerville, MA

Name: Jimmy Sunshine

Nice hat, Jimmy.
Read Jimmy’s story here.

Feb. 2013, Central Square, Cambridge, MA

Name: Angela Douyon-Previlon

Read Angela’s story here.

 

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Frank, February 2012. I-93 off-ramp near South Station.

“Frank is 74 years old. He has been homeless for twenty-two years in Boston, where he also grew up. Before living on the streets, Frank was in jail for theft. He says that since he has been sober, he “has been out of trouble.” When I told him I would stop by again soon, he told me that it wasn’t necessary—“you don’t have to buy a sign anymore!” He spends his days and nights near South Station. ”

 

So, let’s talk about this.

The signs look great. But how does this work as activism? Are the homeless people benefitting from these “makeovers”?

Initially, I thought the motive of the project was for the signs to work basically as an eye catching ad. With the new signs, people are obviously more inclined to look and read them, possibly motivating them to donate some money to the sign holder. In a post on tumblr, one artist says, “The first phase of this project has never been about “increasing the money” they get from the new signs. We pay them for their original signs, and I help many of them try to find housing and work in the Boston area. But in fact, many of the homeless individual’s original signs in our project are not soliciting for money. The signs become an extension of each individual’s self-expression (since they contribute to the design and we use their original text), and act as an invitation to conversation. We as a society cannot solve homelessness without first humanizing the homeless. This means recognizing they are a historically excluded group that suffers great prejudice, in addition to knowing that the experience of homelessness is dehumanizing itself.

We ask for compassion, as people learn more about the reasons why people are actually homeless. Now, there is a strong possibility that the next phase of this project may explore more direct solution-oriented programming. So please stay tuned!

I don’t know if even Don Draper could create an ad campaign strong enough to change public stigmas about homelessness and homeless people. The personal stories shared on the tumblr page are important to hear  and I do hope that some of these people get to tell their stories to people on the street as a result of the sign being a conversation starter.

But still…this idea that we need to makeover any element of the homeless population to “humanize” them is disturbing. Making homeless people look nicer and more approachable in some ways demeans the actual aspects of homelessness that are very ugly.

I see a lot of what I call Ivory Tower Activism and people with saviour complexes involved in “helping” homeless people. They see themselves as compassionate and helpful but are removed from the situation ,and often see themselves as elevated over the people they’re helping, even if they say they see everyone as equal. They themselves do not do a very good job at humanizing the people they are advocating for. When they speak about their activism, they refer to themselves a lot in regards to what THEY accomplished, not what the homeless person gained from advocacy. I know it’s a hard battle to fight in some cities where the policy makers and politicians can’t see that homelessness costs their city more money than if they did the right thing and created more housing and programs that get people off the street. I feel like a lot of people who refer to themselves as activists for the homeless do an incomplete job. They alleviate the symptoms of homelessness instead of focusing on ways to change policies and inspiring others to work to change the system as it is. I  don’t want to hear people speak of their successes as a homeless activist if there is still homelessness where they are focusing efforts. Complete activism is hellbent on ENDING homelessness, not just being nice to homeless people and making sure they’re comfortable while homeless. Compassion & basic needs are certainly very important but providing these also has to exist alongside activism that moves towards solutions.

 

(I’m not saying these sign makeover people are like that. That was just a stray related rant because of very frustrating conversations I’ve had recently with homeless “activists”. )

 

And I’m glad the artist mentions that she does try to help them find housing but it’s a bit disingenuous. If someone is homeless, they have already tried to find housing and the system didn’t work to help them.  People who do not want to be homeless have already tried to not be that way. At least it sounds like this project will hopefully lead to a more complete solution oriented activism.

One of my concerns here with the Homeless Signs project is the language used in reference to people. The most recent post is a memorial to a young homeless woman who died, Colleen. The artist referred to her as “nice but broken”. In an earlier post, the woman’s story is shared. She was a runaway and alludes to abuse as the cause of her running away. She became an  addict .

Colleen was not broken. The situation that caused her to become homeless and an addict was what is broken. Society is broken. Colleen herself should be remembered as a nice young woman. Not but.

April 2013, Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA   *REST IN PEACE

Name: Colleen

Where are you originally from?
I was born and raised between Boston and Cambridge.

 How old are you?
20 years old.

What was it like growing up?
My childhood was good. My family did provide the basics. I do remember being a kid and imagining more for my life. I did not aspire for this. No one wants to be homeless. I hope that people read this and understand… no one sets out to be on the street. Its just that life happens, and it can happen to anyone. Growing up I was told not to judge anyone, so I hope people don’t judge me.

How long have you been homeless?

I have been homeless for three years.

How did you become homeless?

I ran away from home. I don’t feel good talking about why I ran away. Speaking about it is very difficult for me.  Unfortunately, when you’re living on the street you get exposed to different things and so I started taking drugs. It is something that I constantly battle with everyday.

A few months ago, I woke up in the hospital, and my boyfriend and the doctors were looking down at me as I lay in the hospital bed. They told me that I had a drug overdose. My boyfriend is the only support that I have out here, and he also struggles with addiction. I love him a lot. But it is difficult to try and help him with his problems when I can’t even help myself. I am hoping for a miracle so that we both can get “clean” soon and get off the streets.

What is your biggest struggle being homeless?I would say it is the bridges that I’ve burned with my family and friends. My addiction has created so many problems between me and my family. I don’t even know where to start to make amends. Every time that I think I’ve got this thing beat, I let them down. It hurts because I miss my family but I understand why they stay away.

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