Why you should care

This ingenious scheme is helping the homeless help themselves.

We’ve all seen the cardboard signs asking for food, spare change or just simply ‘Help.’ The signs, to most of us, are more blight than beauty, and the messages mostly go ignored as people hurry about their busy day.

But in Barcelona, an NGO wants to help draw attention to the stories behind each of these pleading messages, raising money to help the authors find shelter. Their answer: scanning the handwriting of the homeless and turning it into typographic fonts for sale.

“Each human being’s handwriting is unique,” explains the project’s promotional video, simply titled “HOMELESSFONTS.” “Yet the homeless write signs that no one wants to see. The same thing that helped them beg in the street could now help them to leave it behind forever.”

The rough scrawl on cardboard may look ugly, but when standardized, reproduced and printed, the fonts can look surprisingly attractive and thought-provoking — what is beauty? — perhaps analogous to sculpture made from found objects.

This original initiative emerged from the collaboration between The Cyranos McCann advertising agency and local NGO Arrels, which has been helping the homeless of Barcelona since 1986.

Since the financial crisis hit Spain in 2008, the number of homeless people living in Barcelona has increased by 47 percent. Money raised through HOMELESSFONTS goes to help Arrels offer accommodation, food, and social and health care services for the city’s rough sleepers.

The creators of the project hope to attract brands looking for a unique look and a badge for social awareness.

Does the initiative risk associating its participants’ self-worth with productivity? Is it patronizing? Possibly. The website features the testimonial of Loraine, a homeless member of the scheme: “I never thought my typeface could be worth anything,” she says. “Thanks to this project, I’ve discovered that my writing is nice enough for a brand to take an interest in it and use it on their products.”

HOMELESSFONTS seems to fall into a new category of well-intentioned and creative welfare initiatives — such as turning homeless people into Wi-Fi hotspots or works of art — that, while intriguing, are controversial.

Ethical considerations aside, HOMELESSFONTS is raising money for the homeless. So far it’s created five fonts and hopes to continue expanding the library.

Individuals can buy the surprisingly stylish typefaces for 25 euros; companies pay 375 euros. The creators of the project hope to attract brands looking for a unique look and a badge for social awareness. Valonga, a wine producer, is using a delicate typeface called Loraine on some of its bottles, in turn helping Arrels offer 180 extra beds every night.

Along with the original fonts, buyers also learn the stories behind the handwriting. The website includes profiles of each font creator, from Guillermo, a homeless Argentine artist, to Gemma, a woman from Madrid who says living in the streets of Barcelona is hard but still the “best way to get to know human beings.”

Whether it’s a brilliant idea or a mildly misguided effort, it’s raising both money and awareness for the city’s most vulnerable people, who need all the help they can get.

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