According to the website www.endhomelessness.org, a reported 17,975 homeless people live in Massachusetts or 26.1 per 10,000. For comparison, California has a homelessness rate of 40.9 per 10,000 and New York has a homelessness rate of 46.9 per 10,000.
To shine some light on this epidemic, artist and activist Willie Baronet will bring his art installation project “We Are All Homeless” to the First Congregational Church’s Ripley Chapel in Winchester from Saturday, Nov. 6 to Friday, Nov. 19 with a special opening Gallery Talk on Nov. 6 at 7:30 p.m.
The talk will be BOTH live (45 guests invited to Ripley Chapel) and live streamed.
Baronet became inspired some time ago, because, as he says, “I remember hating the way I felt when I ignored people on the corner.”
There’s little doubt that everyone has been told at one time or another not to give the homeless any money (or, in another word, ignore them). If you give them money, they say, the homeless will only use it to buy drugs, suggesting that all or most homeless people suffer from addiction.
While it’s true that some people living on the street do suffer from drug addiction, to suggest or state outright that most ended up homeless solely do to that addiction ignores the myriad other ways a person could wind up on the street, such as loss of a job, returning from serving the country, mental health issues, physical disabilities, a house fire, or a falling out with family.
Even if you include drug addiction, without knowing how the person became addicted in the first place only leaves room for assumptions, thereby making it easier to ignore the problem and stick with the notion that a homeless person will only use money to feed their drug habit.
For Baronet, instead of giving in to that stereotype, he came up with a “wacky idea” to bring awareness to the homeless crisis in America. Starting in 1993, he began purchasing homeless signs from people on the street.
“It’s pretty straightforward,” he said via email this week, “I ask if they will sell me their signs and 99 percent of the time they say yes. I try to let them set the price if possible.”
Baronet then turned his signs into an art project for display. According to a long-time friend and colleague of Baronet’s, and the person who helped bring the artist to Winchester, Andy Spiegel said each installation “is based on the venue. Some are huge (and) spread out over multiple rooms (while) some are small(er).”
Spiegel said this one would be “tailored to Ripley Chapel, a lovely space, and smaller than some I’ve seen. If you Google ‘We Are All Homeless’ or ‘Signs of Humanity’ you’ll find many signs and installations.”
The church is asking for a free will offering. There is no admission fee, but they ask for generosity to support both Boston’s Outdoor Church (ministering to the homeless of Harvard Square) and Baronet’s We Are All Homeless foundation, continuing its mission of changing minds and hearts about the people on the streets.
Baronet has created exhibits featuring these signs across the U.S. and the UK. The project has been featured in Yahoo! News, NPR - All Things Considered, HuffPost, Al Jazeera America, BuzzFeed, and dozens of other media outlets. An UpWorthy video about the project, uploaded on Aug. 31, 2015, has been viewed over 6.4 million times.
Baronet noted his non-profit is “primarily focused on raising awareness and compassion,” but he mentioned he’s partnered with shelters many times over the years and “many of our events have a component where we gather supplies or make blessing bags for those in need.”
He added, “I’ve also spoken at events to benefit shelters. I spoke at a breakfast fundraiser for the Bridge in Dallas where we raised over $400K in one morning. It is their largest fundraiser every year.”
Homelessness, it should be noted, isn’t merely a big city or Democrat problem, regardless of what some people on TV might have you believe. It affects everyone, everywhere. According to endhomelessness.org, right before the pandemic started there were 580,466 people experiencing homelessness in America. Most were individuals and “they live in every state and territory and they reflect the diversity of America.”
Endhomelessness.org states that 37,000+ are veterans and 34,000+ are unaccompanied youth. Another 110,000+ are considered “chronically homeless” which means these individuals have disabilities and have also been continuously homeless for at least one year or experienced homelessness at least four times in the last three years for a combined length of time at least a year. They make up 19 percent of the homeless population.
The website also states how men experience homelessness at a greater rate than females: out of 10,000 homeless, 22 are men and 13 are women. In total, 352,211 men are homeless compared to 223,578 women (3,161 transgender people and 1,460 non-binary people also suffer from homelessness).
Not surprisingly, minorities suffer from homelessness in far greater numbers than white people do: 109 out of 10,000 Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, 45 out of 10,000 Native Americans and 52 out of 10,000 Black or African American (compared to the overall rate of 18 out of 10,000). In total, white people suffer the most, but only because more white people live in America than any other race.
While the website doesn’t supply data for how COVID-19 impacted the homeless crisis, Baronet said the pandemic is expected to increase homelessness by 45 percent.
“One of the many blessings,” he acknowledged, “of my project is that I come into contact with many others trying to make a difference and I’m inspired by lots of what I see happening.”
For those who attend the exhibit, Spiegel says it will change how you view this issue.
“I can tell you for certain, everybody (including me) who sees this exhibit and hears Willie comes away with a totally different point of view about the homeless - less fearful, more understanding, more accepting, and more loving. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken to who tell me this.”
While this might be Baronet’s first time physically in Winchester, the First Congregational Church hosted a watch party for his documentary “Signs of Humanity,” after which Baronet presented and spoke at a “very engaging and well-attended Zoom,” according to Jane Ring Frank, the church’s Minister of Music and Worship Arts.
Frank added how the church sent Baronet information about the venue so he could tailor his installation to their Ripley Chapel.
“We are excited that he will be with us,” Frank exclaimed, adding the signs will be shipped to the church so that Baronet can create within the walls of the chapel.
Anyone interested may join in person: https://bit.ly/WAAHchair OR they may view the opening Gallery Talk from the safety of their home: https://bit.ly/WAAHLS. Please make sure to register for the event by using the Sign-Up Genius Links.
For more information about the gallery talk and installation, please visit www.fcc-winchester.org or contact Jane Ring Frank, Minister of Music and Worship Arts at 857-919-0983 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.