Homeless Fonts Are a Feel-Good Fail

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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