For years I’ve been fascinated with the cardboard signs that you see people holding at intersections all across America. We all are completely fluent in this form of communication but we rarely think about it. This ongoing dialogue through windshields across the country between those that have slipped through the cracks and those that are still hanging on. I can’t help but wonder, why does that sign say what it does? Why do the same themes and sometimes the exact same words show up on signs a thousand miles apart? Do the signs that work best spread as memes?
I had so many questions about the signs but they were fundamentally connected to questions about my own giving. Sometimes I did. Sometimes I didn’t. And I didn’t know why. I’d certainly heard that if you give that “they” will just spend it on drugs or alcohol. So somehow it’s kinder not to give. My wife would only give food. I always liked that. But I’ve paid lots of employees that spent their money on alcohol and drugs. Too much sometimes. But we didn’t decide not to pay them because of how they chose to spend their money.
When you’re living on the street the effectiveness of your communication matters. Here in Boulder I began to notice signs that were creative and sometimes funny. Was this something new? Was it effective? I decided that as a fan of creativity I would buy the signs that moved me. It would be how I decided to give or not. So I stashed extra cardboard and markers in my car (because I felt that people would need to replace their sign) and started collecting.
To buy a sign takes time and some explanation so I usually park someplace and walk over to say hello and introduce my insane collection and my appreciation of their sign. You always learn a lot talking to people and this is no different. The first thing I learned is food is good but money is good too. People need to eat but they can’t turn a sandwich into a new pair of boots or gloves. The second thing I learned is that the shelter isn’t a place many homeless want to be. They get sick there and their things get stolen. Shelters are needed and I support them, but they aren’t the solution for everybody. The third thing I learned is that there are no two situations alike and the idea that everybody living on the streets is there because they have mental or substance problems is a myth. The final thing I learned for myself is that the myths that encourage us to be less generous have a cost greater than we realize.
I found that I give more often now and not always through buying a sign. And although I know I can’t micro manage how that money I give will be spent, the spirit of generosity ripples out from that moment. It spills into our shared consciousness in some small way and makes more of the same. At least that’s my hope. After all, it might have been a lack of generosity that put that person on the street in the first place.
By Alex Bogusky
Editor's Note: Check out some t-shirts we've made inspired by a couple signs we liked. The shirts are screen printed locally in Boulder, Colorado and a portion of the proceeds are donated to the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless.