Signs for change?

By Aviva Einhorn

Homeless people in downtown Chicago are turning in their homemade signs for a less traditional badge as they begin to hold white, laminated pieces of computer paper reading “Homeless” or “Please help.”

The Homeless Signs project is responsible for the circulation of these new labels. Created by Christopher Devine and David Rauen, the project aims to help panhandlers to better solicit the attention of passersby, but some who help the homeless see the project as only minimally effective.

The project began in October 2011 when Devine and Rauen organized an effort to hand out laminated, waterproof signs to panhandlers in the city. Their objective was to provide a more practical and visible alternative to handmade signs that often become weathered and faded.

According to Devine, inspiration for the project came after seeing a homeless woman holding a nearly illegible, worn out sign. After struggling to read it, Devine said he had an idea to create more readable, attention-grabbing signs to make individuals in similar predicaments harder to ignore.

“The homeless have become truly invisible [and have] become a fixture of the street,” Devine said. “They blend into the sidewalk and the cardboard signs contribute to that. We have panhandlers. Let’s make them as visible as possible and spark a public debate about how to really help the homeless.”

Jim LoBianco, executive director of StreetWise Inc., an agency that assists men and women facing homelessness, has been working with the city’s homeless community for 20 years. LaBianco, the former commissioner for the Office of Homeless Services under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, said he is disappointed that a project intended to aid the homeless community has come in a form that promotes panhandling.

“I appreciate Mr. Devine’s motivation, but I think he is missing the target,” LoBianco said. “In this country, we use the turn of phrase, ‘It’s the very least I could do.’ The truth is, throwing change into someone’s cup is truly the very least that someone can do.”

LoBianco said supporting panhandling is a weak alternative to getting involved in the political issues responsible for cuts to programs addressing poverty. He said it’s unfortunate that people are choosing this route rather than getting involved in agencies and programs directed at helping people establish safe and stable lives.

“I don’t want to allow people to feel that throwing change in a cup is meeting the requirement that each person has to another person as a human being,” LoBianco said. “We should demand more of ourselves.”

According to him, life on Chicago streets is unsafe and unhealthy. He sees the Homeless Signs project as an aggressive step to formulate a structure for a practice that is detrimental to the homeless.

Since the project began in October 2011, Devine estimates that approximately 70 percent of people offered signs have been receptive and often grateful for the upgrade.

Wilma Means, who has been homeless for 15 years, stands at the corner of Adams Street and Wabash Avenue every day with a Starbucks cup and no sign. Until recently, she did not know the project existed.

“I would love a sign,” Means said. “That way, I wouldn’t have to be standing out here yelling all day [and] I could just hold my sign.”

According to Devine, even those who believe the project is misguided cannot deny that it has at least brought attention to the subject of homelesness.

Devine is currently working on a third sign option that will read “Veteran” for individuals who prefer to not identify themselves as homeless. He said word about the project has spread, and cities as far away as London have shown interest in taking on their own Homeless Signs programs.

In response to the buzz the project has created, LoBianco said the reason the concept has spread so easily is because handing out signs is a deceptively simple way to get involved while taking minimal action.

“If there are people who, if there’s not a cup for them to throw their change into, they’re not going to give to anything, so be it,” LoBianco said. “But to allow a culture that would support panhandling and people living on the street, that is truly a detrimental act to the panhandler.”