It took Willie Baronet one week to purchase 89 cardboard signs from homeless people and panhandlers on the streets of Philadelphia. At $10 to $20 apiece and with an optional reimbursement of a new square of cardboard and a Sharpie, almost all were happy to do business with him.

In the same week, Rosie Frasso and her nine students at Thomas Jefferson University conducted 41 interviews with the signs' sellers, recording stories and data from Philly's sprawling on-the-street population.

Baronet's art and Frasso's research will complement each other in a public exhibition titled "Signs of Humanity" at Thomas Jefferson University from Monday, Sept. 17, through Sept. 22. The exhibition will explore the relationship between panhandlers and "passersbys," and encourage viewers to ponder answers to the question, "What is home?"

"It's been a funny partnership, but a rich one," Frasso says of the project. "If you're holding a hammer, everything's a nail. Willie sees those signs and says, 'Oh, art!' and I see them and say, 'Oh, data!' "

This is the second collaboration between Baronet and Frasso, who produced a study entitled "Cardboard Commentary: A Qualitative Analysis of the Signs From America's Streets" in the American Journal of Public Health in 2016.

For Baronet, purchasing and creating artwork from cardboard signs has become somewhat of a hobby. He purchased his first sign in 1993 as a way to engage with people he realized he typically ignored — and hasn't stopped since.

"I have every sign that I've bought," says Baronet, most of which have been sorted into alphabetized shelves in his art studio in Dallas.

In 2014, Baronet created the documentary, Signs of Humanity, for which a camera crew followed him from Seattle to New York, as he purchased nearly 300 signs and captured many priceless stories.

It was during this filming that Baronet met Eddie Dunn, 42, who now rents a three-bedroom apartment in Grays Ferry and works as a salesman for a public insurance adjusting firm.

"[In] November 2014, I was living behind an Arby's and under the Girard exit of I-95," says Dunn. "Now, I have a good relationship with my daughter. With my son. My mom. I didn't think that I was going to get that."

Dunn was nearing the end of a poisonous relationship with heroin when he met Baronet, who was drawn to Dunn by his sign, reading, "What if God occasionally visits Earth disguised as a homeless guy panhandling to see how charitable we are?" Dunn was interviewed on film for the documentary and the sign was exchanged for $20 — half the price that Dunn had requested — who laughs when recalling, "my negotiation skills weren't really that good."

Months later, while in recovery, Dunn, knowing he was featured in the documentary, noticed his old sign in the background of one of Baronet's Facebook photos and reached out to Baronet to see if he remembered their encounter. Baronet did.

The two met for lunch in Philadelphia, and, in the words of Baronet, became "fast friends." 

"The sad truth is," Dunn says, "people don't read [cardboard signs]. When you're downtown and you're sitting on the ground and you've got a sign, people are trying not to make eye contact. My encounter with Willie was one of a handful where I felt like a human being, for a minute." He adds, "if there's anything I would ever want to let people know who have a negative view of people on the street, people with addictions — people at the bottom of the offering holding signs — is that… people don't stay in that condition permanently. Those are people."

Baronet flew Dunn out to Texas in 2016, where he participated in a TED talk, spoke on a panel at an exhibit, and watched — for the first time — a screening of the documentary.

Dunn will speak at a reception and panel on Sept. 20 about his experience on the streets. In October, he will walk his daughter down the aisle.

The first time his daughter's fiance saw him was while waiting in the drive-through line of the very Arby's that Dunn once slept behind.

Frasso was introduced to Dunn during the current project and says, "it's important to have the lens of someone who has had that experience, instead of just a bunch of do-gooders trying to understand what that means."

Unlike Baronet, she and her students were limited in the number of panhandlers they could speak to.

"He can buy a sign from anyone; we can't interview anyone who doesn't seem completely coherent," says Frasso, who worked with the Institutional Review Board to set rules and limitations for the research side of the project.

All interviews were conducted anonymously and compensated with $10. From there, the crew used tools such as mapping and qualitative analysis to record information, like demographic statistics and basic facts about the subjects' lives.

Questions need to be formulated carefully to unearth authentic responses, says Frasso, who explains that when she asks directly how a panhandler uses their money, no one says "drugs," but when asked, " 'How do others use the money?' drugs are way up there."

The exhibit will pair the interviewee's quotes with their respective signs. To stay anonymous, quotes will be marked with either a number or an alias name — Frasso says she prefers an alias as a way to further humanize the topic. For her and her team, she describes the project as a heavy and humbling experience.

"It could totally be any of us," says Frasso. "If you don't have a safety net, you can land at the corner of 15th and Walnut."


Signs of Humanity

  • 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday, Sept. 17 through Sunday, Sept. 22, Hamilton Building 4th Floor Lobby (1001 Locust Street), free and open to the public (capacity 200 people).

Reception and panel

  • 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Sept. 20, Hamilton Building 4th Floor Lobby (1001 Locust Street), free and open to the public (capacity 200 people).