Handwritten pleas for help, written by homeless people, were installed at the Durango Transit Center Monday to help further the conversation about the issue in Durango.
Willie Baronet, artist and founder of the WE ARE ALL HOMELESS Impact Campaign, started purchasing signs 24 years ago in part because he hated the way that he felt when he passed someone holding a sign asking for help.
Those signs became art installations across the country that help people engage with the cries for help in a way that people typically don’t engage with homeless people, he said.
In his exhibit, Baronet hopes people see that there are all sorts of different reasons why people are on the streets.
“It’s so easy to lump everybody together and pass judgment on them. I don’t think that’s helpful or useful or truthful,” he said.
In 2014, Baronet and three filmmakers took a road trip and interviewed more than 100 people living on the streets for a documentary called “Signs of Humanity.” It explores the themes of home, homelessness, compassion and humanity.
It also addresses what it’s like to be ignored.
In one case, a homeless person told Baronet: “I would rather somebody look at me and smile than give me a dollar,” he said.
In his travels, he’s seen some cities try to sweep the problem under the carpet, he said, and others start more proactive programs to address the issue holistically by providing housing, giving people jobs and building up people’s self-esteem.
“It starts with awareness and compassion. If people don’t care, they are not likely to do something,” he said.
Durango City Councilor Melissa Youssef invited Baronet to Durango for screenings of his documentary after finding out about his work through a friend of a friend, Jill Agnew, who works with the campaign.
Youssef hopes Baronet’s work will help humanize the issue of homelessness in Durango.
The issue is a divisive one in Durango and city and county officials have discussed developing a permanent homeless camp that would replace the area near the Tech Center where people are currently camping full time.
“I hope that we can become informed about this issue that we are dealing with as a community,” Youssef said.
The city of Durango is promoting the event but is not paying for it. The event is sponsored by the Community Foundation of Southwest Colorado, Axis Health Systems, Manna and the Rochester Hotel, which provided lodging.
Youssef hopes to follow up Baronet’s visit with a community panel discussion on homelessness in several weeks.