PHILADELPHIA — Near 10th and Market streets, Edward Dunn held up a piece of cardboard on which he had scrawled a plea in the form of a question.
“What if God occasionally visits Earth disguised as a homeless guy panhandling to see how charitable we are?”
A minute later, an answer walked up: Texas-based artist Willie Baronet.
He offered to buy Dunn’s sign, but not for the sake of charity or even religion.
Baronet, 54, has embarked on an unusual, long-term project, purchasing the signs of homeless people and turning them into exhibits, seeking to make people consider the meaning of home. It’s called “We Are All Homeless.”
“It’s really meaning, ‘We are all the same,’” Baronet said. “If there’s a person on the street holding up a sign, at a basic level, it’s someone asking for help. The title means there’s no us or them. It’s just us.”
Dunn, 38, was eager to sell — as are most people whom Baronet approaches. His eyes were glassy, his arms scarred, his skin itchy. He asked $40 for his sign but settled for half.
Baronet sought more than Dunn’s sign.
“What does home mean to you?” he asked.
“Wherever I lay down at night,” Dunn answered, “that would be home for me.”
In Philadelphia on a recent Monday, Baronet neared the end of a 31-day, 24-city trek during which he has bought scores of signs.
Baronet has pursued his obsession for more than 20 years. This month he made his first cross-country trip, buying signs from Seattle to Cincinnati and Portland to Pittsburgh, trailed by a crew filming a documentary.
After raising nearly $48,000 through Indiegogo to pay for the trip, he has bought about 230 signs. All together he has more than 800, each one different.
Some are miniature artworks, others crude and misspelled. They are comic or desperate, confident or pleading, written on pizza boxes, place mats, wooden planks and ice-cooler lids.
“Outta beer,” said a sign from Seattle.
“I am short $8 for an inhaler,” said one from Albuquerque.
A longtime graphic designer, Baronet is drawn to the signs as artifacts: The style of lettering. The sweat stains. The choice of words.
Most people “are a little baffled at first at why I want them,” Baronet said. “They think it’s completely worthless.”
Once he explains, many become interested. They want to tell their stories to someone who will listen.
On Market Street, near City Hall, Doug Nelson sat slumped against a light pole, tattooed from leg to arm to hand to neck.
“Unemployed Homeless and Hungry. Anything will help,” his sign said.
Baronet introduced himself. Nelson, 34, quickly pulled notepads from his bag, the pages filled with elaborate drawings of anime figures.
Nelson said he was an artist too. He wants to start a tattoo business. Home, he said, is not a place but a people.
“It’s my family,” Nelson said. “It means my family.”
He took $10 for his sign.
Generally, Baronet lets the homeless person set the price — “it’s part of what changes the dynamic” — but he tries not to spend more than $25. Most people ask $2 or $5. He never pays less than $10.
A few days ago in Washington, D.C., a man refused to sell. “Not for any price!” he told Baronet.
The signs become part of art installations. Dozens may be merged into a giant, warehouse-wall-size collage. Or suspended from gallery-room ceilings. Or held up by people in a kind of homeless-sign flash mob.
As he traversed the Center City arts district of Philadelphia, Baronet noticed a young man perched at the door of a Burger King, holding a tiny cardboard sign, smaller than a half-sheet of paper.
In almost-too-small-to-read letters it said, “I’m asking for food and drink not money.”
The man happily sold it for $10.
“That was awesome!” he said, tucking the bill into his pocket.