Redesigning signs for the homeless is not ‘frivolous’ or ‘hipstery’.


I saw this sign as I was scrolling Facebook and it caught my eye. Because it’s eye-catching. Then I read the headline and my skepticism meter filled all the way up.

I clicked expecting to be disappointed and frustrated by the disconnect between the privileged Brooklyn Hipsters and those most vulnerable among us.

I was wrong.

“A cynic might say that Todd’s redesigned signs are an insensitive parody of the real thing, a superficial effort to cure a deep social problem.”

My knee-jerk reaction was addressed right there in the piece.

I’m hyper-aware of homelessness being new to Washington, DC. New York City has a big homeless population and as a veteran, homelessness is an part of my community’s experience. But veteran homelessness in NYC has been nearly eliminated and homeless civilians are easy to miss when the sidewalks are so dirty and crowded and everyone is going so fast.

The problem of homelessness had crept to the back of my mind to collect dust. Until I moved to DC.

Homelessness here (at least in the square mile I’ve managed to explore in my first week living here) is MUCH more visible. The sidewalks are wide and clean. There are very few people compared to New York. You can really see how unfair and unequal this country really is.

Homeless persons sleeping next to Internal Revenue Service Building sign in Washington, DC. Flickr/Trey Radcliff

Every day people like me — housed people who have good jobs that pay good money — walk past people like them.

The sidewalks are big and white and clean. We walk briskly, but not too quickly, in our collared shirts and pencil skirts. There are enough of us to make the place look busy, but not so many that it looks crowded.

They stick out. They’re sitting or laying on the big, clean, white sidewalks against the big, clean, white buildings. They’re scraggly and dirty. Maybe they have a sign. Maybe they have some belongings. But we know who they are. And we walk right past them.

Adequately fed and caffeinated, we swipe our badges to go back to our computers and our meetings and we forget about them for four more hours.

Then it’s time to go home. To our homes. That we have.

We switch into our comfy shoes because the day is over and we don’t have to impress anyone with fashionable artifice anymore. And because we have more than one pair of shoes. We walk briskly, but not too quickly, in our collared shirts and pencil skirts and comfortable shoes. We walk past them.

The article makes me think about all the signs I’ve walked past in my 10 years of living in cities. All the people behind them. All the stories behind them.

How many have there been? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Could I have walked past a hundred thousand stories where that day’s chapter was sitting behind a sign, hoping for a blessing?

On Friday, I needed some gum. “Needed.”

On Friday, I wanted some gum, so I went to CVS. A man was sitting outside with a backpack reading a book. He didn’t have a cup. Just a sign that said smile. I remembered him from Thursday and wondered where his action figures went.

As I walked through the store looking for my favorite brand of gum, I kept thinking of him. Just sitting there reading, not asking for anything. I decided to get him a big bottle of water.

My gum was across from the magazines. “What would he read?” I got him a Newsweek and an Economist too. “Should I have gotten him a Maxim? That would have been fun to read…”

I laid them both in front of him and he smiled.

“Thank you, sister.”

His teeth were stained and rotting. He’s been homeless a long time.

I can’t get him out of my head.


This young college kid did something beautiful for these people. He used a resource so much more precious than money. He used his time. He used a great deal of his time to do the best he could for the 17 people he made signs for. I have to believe he made their lives better.

“A cynic might say that Todd’s redesigned signs are an insensitive parody of the real thing, a superficial effort to cure a deep social problem.”

I believe that Todd’s redesigned signs ARE the solution to homelessness.

Because they represent what it looks like when we take the time to see the homeless as people — not as “homeless”. What could we accomplish if we were all willing to stop walking past them?