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I Bought Signs Homeless People Use to Beg—Here's What Happened

200 signs told the story of poverty in America and in the world.

Photo Credit: via youtube.com


Sign of the Times was conceived in early October when I started to see what I perceived as a  greater number of homeless people in New YorkCity. As a native New Yorker, it surprised me because I had never seen so many people begging and sleeping on the streets. It occurred to me to start buying the signs that the homeless use to ask for money.

I immersed myself in the project, going out almost on a daily basis and walking five, six, seven hours a day. Once, I even walked 12 hours around the city – uptown to Harlem, East and West, downtown to Battery Park and back home to the East Village. I never took transportation anywhere because I felt that since the homeless live on the streets, I had to walk the streets like they do. After a while, a few said to me, "I've heard of you. You're the guy going around buying signs. I was wondering if you were ever going to find me." I bought about 200 signs and usually offered $20 which they were happy, even ecstatic, to get. (Once, though, I saw a sign that said, "Just need $10". So I said to the guy, "I'll give you $10 for it" and he said, "You got it. I guess the sign did its job!")

What struck me about the people who sold me their signs was their willingness to let go of them. It was as if they had little attachment to them even though some signs had been with them for a long time. Of course, they needed the money. Many people would tell me they had made nothing that day. But I also think that those who possess little have less attachment to material things. They know what it's like to live with less.

I had a certain way of approaching people. Whenever I saw anyone sitting on the street with a sign I wanted, I would crouch down, but not sit down. To sit down next to them would be like sitting on their couch without asking permission. But by crouching down, I could look them in the eye and be on the same level. Then I would say, "Can I ask you a question?"

They always said yes and I'd say, "I'm an artist. And artists see things in a different way. And one of the things I see are the signs the homeless have. I'm buying these signs because I see every sign as a story. There are many stories out here that should be heard. Can I offer you $20 for your sign?" They would all say yes, and it touched me how grateful many people were when I bought their sign. I got several hugs and many a "God bless you."

I bought signs from people of all ages, including some who were my age. I remember buying a sign from a man in his 60s who was sitting outside the McDonald's around 10pm. He looked at me as if I was an angel from heaven. He had pennies in his cup and couldn't believe I wanted to give him $20 for his sign. He said, "Now, I can get a bed and a meal."

The youngest person I bought a sign from was probably 16. I forgot to ask her age, but she could have been even younger. Her sign read:

Mom told us to wait right here. That was 10 years ago.

I got every sign I wanted except one. It was a nice sign, with a photograph on a small button and some other details and writing. I had just bought a sign from a friend of this sign's owner, but when I asked to buy this sign, the man holding it explained that it was his lucky sign. He'd had it for five years. I said, "OK" and walked away. I could have offered more money, but I didn't want to take his lucky sign away from him.

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