Reactor

Homeless Fonts Are a Feel-Good Fail

by Jillian Steinhauer on July 1, 2014

Loraine's page on Homeless Fonts, with her typeface in use on the right (via homelessfonts.org)

Loraine’s page on Homeless Fonts, with her typeface in use on the right (via homelessfonts.org)

In recent years, homeless people have been put to an impressively creative, and deeply problematic, range of uses: as wifi hot spots, as subjects for police training, as publicly minded art, and now, a new one — as typography.

Homeless Fonts is a project by the Barcelona-based Arrels Foundation that turns homeless people’s handwriting into typefaces. The typefaces are offered for sale on the Homeless Fonts website, with the idea being that individuals and companies (especially the latter) will purchase and use them in advertising. The companies get a more interesting, ‘unique’ look for their brand, and the money they spend goes to help the homeless. Everybody wins, right?

Sort of.

The first red flag is that it’s unclear where the money raised from the Homeless Fonts project actually goes. On the Homeless Fonts front page, it merely says, “All the proceeds go to the Arrels Foundation.” What about the individuals whose handwriting is being purchased? On the About page the explanation is more precise and promising: “The money raised goes to the author of the font through the Arrels Foundation.” But then, on the Press page, we again get the idea that the money is just going to the foundation, not to the writers: “The funds collected through Homelessfonts.org will be used to finance the work of the Arrels foundation for homeless people in Barcelona.” Is this a fundraiser for the foundation itself, or does it directly benefit the homeless participants (and if so, how)? This is a fundamental question that needs to be answered clearly.

Even if the money’s not an issue, the whole project seems suspect, with its saccharine videos and cheerleading press. Homeless Fonts is built around the kind of benevolent branding that lets everyone feel warm and fuzzy about “helping people” without actually forcing them to think about (let alone change) the structural forces that leave people living on the streets. In the case of the “big brands” Arrels is aiming for, this is especially, painfully ironic: the ruthless business practices and large profits of corporations may contribute to increasing economic stratification — but don’t worry, they’re watching out for the little guys.

What’s disturbing, too, is how the Arrels Foundation’s presentation of the project buys so completely into the status quo: the organization promises “dignity” for the participants through this bizarre branding exercise. Consider this anecdote they offer:

“I never thought my typeface could be worth anything,” says Loraine, one of the participants in the scheme. “Thanks for the project, I’ve discovered that my writing is nice enough for a brand like Valonga to take an interest in it and use it on their products.”

This is the teaching of self-worth through commodification — not exactly a lesson anyone needs in 2014. It’s also an endorsement for a product, not a discussion of how said product helped Loraine in practical or concrete terms.

And of course, the efforts of the brands that participate in Homeless Fonts will be rewarded with “a quality seal identifying the project and so demonstrating their social commitment.” More ways to promote your image through laughably minimal action! I thought homeless chic was bad, but this is homeless corporate, and it might be worse.

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  • Barb

    Good questions.

  • NBMH

    While I think they could be a bit more specific about how the profits are divided, what I understood is that part goes to the artist (because it’s their work) and part goes to the foundation (because it’s about helping a larger population of the homeless)

    Although it’s in Catalan, this page shows that Arrels Foundation is pretty transparent about finances: http://www.arrelsfundacio.org/qui-som/els-comptes-clars

    Arrels Foundation is a legitimate organisation based in Barcelona, and if you would like to see more about their work in Barcelona: http://www.arrelsfundacio.org/que-fem/

    As for commodification… we are all selling ourselves and commodifying everyday. If the artist agrees to what they will receive in exchange, it is their decision to make. I was much more skeeved out by Bob Dylan’s ING direct commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pg8ZRHn2ZKs

    I think it’s a good policy to not naïvely trust every do-good campaign out there, especially when money is involved. However, find this article to be lacking a bit of research.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Arrels definitely is legitimate, I just feel like they are walking a weird, fine line with this, which requires them to be extra up-front and transparent. As for commodification: I think there’s a BIG difference between Bob Dylan choosing to sell himself—he is in the position to do so—and encouraging homeless people, who are far more vulnerable and in a position to be exploited, to do so. Homeless people, by default, have far, far fewer options; if you’re going to encourage them to brand themselves and make the case that it helps them—well, then you need to make that case and be extremely careful about how you go about it, so as not to exploit them.

      • NBMH

        Good points, which is why I’m glad Arrels is behind this, and not Coca-Cola, because even if they sell the fonts to Coca-Cola, it’s a big difference. Coca-Cola would be a “customer,” while the artists are backed by an organisation whose motive is to put an end to homelessness in Barcelona. If any evidence of exploitation of homeless individuals in this project were to come to light, I would be completely against this project, because that goes against the whole point of it. However, at the moment, there is no such evidence. Isn’t it a bit soon to call it a feel good “fail”?

        Finally, if the homeless are so vulnerable that they can’t be trusted to do anything, how will they ever get anywhere?

        • Jillian Steinhauer

          I’m not saying they’re so vulnerable they can’t be trusted; I’m asking if farming out their handwriting to companies that contribute in major ways to the societal problems that make homelessness such a massive problem is really the best way to help them, and the problem at large.

          And of course they can be “trusted,” but it also doesn’t mean they can’t be taken advantage of (even with good intentions).

          • NBMH

            There is no best way to solve the problem, you can only chip away at it.

            In our society it’s pretty much impossible not to interact with companies that contribute in major ways to the societal problems. Like it or not, non-profits rely on checks from those big companies.

            You can’t blame people with honest intentions for trying to work within our twisted system. Even if we are able to turn it all on it’s head and create an ideal society, a lot of people will die of starvation and other preventable diseases before then.

            The selling of the fonts to companies may irk you, which is fine, but it doesn’t irk me. Some people were born into money and their parents’ connections land them jobs where they make lots of money or can make their own clothing line with little or no effort at all. I see this project as infusing a tiny bit of that luck into these homeless people’s lives, which is probably way overdue, while also funding aid to the homeless in Barcelona as a whole.

            Anyway, I think the only way to really get to the bottom of this would be to interview one of the participants and get more details, more raw feelings, reactions and anecdotes.

          • NBMH

            Interesting, one of the homeless individuals who participated used to work as a graphic designer! “There are the curlicues of Francisco font, based on the work of Francisco, an older man who lives on the streets but used to be a graphic designer.” http://www.fastcoexist.com/3032427/now-you-can-even-license-fonts-for-social-good

          • NBMH

            Some more videos to get to know the artists


            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eOcAHUE9N98

            Anyway, I don’t know if you can tell but I’m really into this project and I hope you guys will come around!

          • Rasta Man

            Why shouldn’t homeless people enjoy selling their works to those who consider themselves our betters? I do. It doesn’t have to be an unpleasant transaction, there is heaps of irony in it.

  • Ferran

    Hi,

    This is Ferran Busquets, the director of Arrels Fundació. Some points:
    - Homelessfonts is a Project runned by Arrels Foundation, an NGO working since 1987 that has provided attention to more than 8.000 homeless people in Barcelona. Last year we offered accommodation, food and social and medical support to 1.354 men and women.
    - Homeless Font is more a campaign to increase awareness about homelessness rather than a fund-raising campaign.
    - All people who are joining the project with their handwriting were homeless people and now fortunately they have accommodation and receive the support of Arrels Foundation to go forward in their lifes.
    - Most of the participants give lectures to students, they offer their testimony, explain their experiences to media or they carry out tasks as voluntary workers. They are not passive subjects. They are adult people acting with total freedom.
    - Authors of the fonts are people who offer their handwriting and typographers who convert them into usable typefaces.
    - All the money raised from Homelessfonts goes directly to tehe services provided by Arrels Foundation not only to the participants of the project.
    - Most of the purchases are from individuals. They have showed their interest not only in typefaces but in the person behind it and we are very satisfied.

    Please, for any question contact us!

    Ferran
    http://twitter.com/ArrelsFundacio
    http://twitter.com/ferranb

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Thank you for writing, Ferran! This answers a lot of questions. If I may make a recommendation, it would be to clarify all of these things on your site—especially the fact that the participants are no longer homeless. It sounds as though the way the project has been packaged (in English) is quite divergent from the project itself.

    • tcinphilly

      Thank you for your response. This is a very compelling idea. I use a hand-written font on my site and I will strongly consider one of these for the future.Your English site does lack some of the details about how the funds are used, and as an American I felt I should learn more about the organization as I’m not familiar with it. Thanks for your work and your compassion.

  • tcinphilly

    Did Steinhauer even contact Arrels, or simply jump to these conclusions on her own? I’m not sure “fail” would not have made it into the title if she had. Perhaps that’s more disturbing than her *failed* allegations of misuse.

  • Ghibli

    I’d suggest that even with a site name like yours, you don’t have to be quite so reactionary to people obviously trying to do some good.

    It’s a very easy job, criticising other people. I just did it to you. Wouldn’t ever want to do it for a living though. The world would seem like a terrible place.

  • http://gogetcreativedesign.wix.com/go-get-creative Brenda Whitfield

    I felt good about it until I read your article. But sometimes it’s not about money to the people who created something and get to see it in action. I know that gives them pride, and yes, even some dignity and a feeling of worth. They created something that has been acknowledged as good and worthy of praise and pride. They might be down, and put down as worthless, but they can still create something beautiful. Therefore their life is still meaningful. It’s not about the money, although I hope the individuals at least get a part of the proceeds; it’s about the art of creation and having something to be proud of. That might not be THE point, but it is a pretty significant one.

  • Adam

    Jillian, you sound like a person who would like to genuinely improve the world. If you feel they’re doing it all wrong, wouldn’t it be best for you to provide them some constructive advice on how they could improve ?

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