PITTSBURGH (AP) - The man Willie Baronet was looking for stood at a corner on East Ohio Street on the North Side.
He wore a baseball cap and a faded U.S. Naval Academy T-shirt. A cardboard sign he held up read, “Homeless and Hungry / 2 Honest 2 Steal Anything Helps.”
Baronet slowly walked up to the man and asked him if he would sell his sign. In the 12 minutes that followed, they exchanged stories as well as currency. The man, named Johnny, offered glimpses into his life on Pittsburgh’s streets: just a while ago, police officers had ordered him to leave his spot.
Baronet took Johnny’s worn-out sign and handed him a $10 bill.
“I’ve been buying signs for 21 years as a way of wrestling with my own guilt,” Baronet said. “Once I started, I couldn’t stop.”
The 54-year-old Southern Methodist University professor and resident of Dallas, Texas, arrived in Pittsburgh Thursday as a part of his cross-country “We Are All Homeless” project, which aims to spread awareness about the complexities of homelessness by rendering panhandling placards into art. Baronet purchases the signs from homeless people for a price of their own choosing, at a maximum of $25. If the person’s suggestion seems too low, he will offer to pay at least $10.
The artist, who teaches creative design at SMU, has exhibited the signs as installation pieces at several galleries in Dallas, as well as ones in Germany and Los Angeles. Sometimes the signs will cover the walls or hang from the ceiling. Once, he adhered them to the floor, so people would step on them without realizing they were there.
His current project combines the impetus of these exhibitions and the concept of performance art to create what he calls “a series of flash mob followings.” Video footage from Mr. Baronet’s tour of homeless communities across America will be made into a documentary that will include profiles of the individuals he meets along the way.
He began his journey on July 1 on “the edge of the country,” in Seattle. From there he traveled to cities like Albuquerque, Omaha and Cincinnati. The stops were chosen for their large homeless populations, Mr. Baronet said.
A 2012 report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness and Homelessness Research Institute estimated Pittsburgh’s homeless population at more 2,000 individuals. Allegheny Count reported 1,492 homeless people in the region last year.
Baronet used to look the other way when he encountered homeless people - now he seeks them out.
His head was tilted forward earnestly as he walked through Market Square, Downtown. He strode ahead of the camera crew, scanning corners and alleyways, his purposeful strides concealing the fact that he was visiting Pittsburgh for the first time.
“The lessons these people have taught me are endless,” Baronet said, looking every part the artist in a plaid shirt and colorfully embroidered jeans. “Every story has, for me, been powerful.”
Walking along Boulevard of the Allies, he glanced across the street at a line of people in front of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. They were receiving food from a red door.
“Skid row, places where homeless people eat and gather, are a completely different scene from where we find them holding signs,” Baronet said without slowing down. The ends of exit ramps, where there is constant traffic, were likelier spots.