Photo taken by Anthony Bustos and uploaded to Twitter. Credit: Anthony Bustos.

A man from San Francisco is drawing attention to a crisis that has become little more than an everyday fixture in cities across the world: homelessness. For Anthony Bustos, what homeless people need from him isn’t money - but a better sign.

Every night, thousands of homeless people sleep on the streets of San Francisco. Yet many go unnoticed by commuters used to the sight of panhandlers begging for money. In one night alone last year, more than 6,000 people were counted sleeping rough; and that figure only counts the adults. A separate count found that almost 1,000 young people were sleeping without a roof over their heads. Despite spending a reported $165 million a year, the city hasn’t made any headway in the struggle against homelessness.

Photo taken by Anthony Bustos and uploaded to Twitter.

Anthony Bustos decided to give the homeless a subtle lesson in marketing – by giving them signs that would turn heads. His solution was to replace predictable signs like ‘Poor and Hungry’ with funny messages that could make people look twice, and give money. It’s not the first time such an initiative has sprung up: in Massachusetts, ‘Signs for the Homeless’ invites artists to give drab cardboard signs colorful makeovers to induce passers-by to part with their money.

"I looked at him and thought: I wish there was something funny written on that sign. So I made him a new one"

While the idea remains the same, Bustos prefers using humor to persuade passers-by to take another look.

I was driving down Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, and I saw a homeless man with a sign that just said ‘poor and hungry’ – like every other sign I see homeless people holding. I looked at him and thought: I wish there was something funny written on that sign. So I made him a new one. I think the first sign was ‘law school isn’t cheap’. And he loved it. So I made several more. I kept them in my car and I passed them out to homeless people who I thought would benefit from a funny sign. I thought to myself, what would I want to see if I was driving down the road? I would like to see something that would make me take a second look. Some of my favorite signs were ‘I make it rain’, ‘I need a new time machine’, ‘Hogwarts or bust’ and ‘Need money for Jedi training’.
Photo taken by Anthony Bustos and uploaded to Twitter.

My eventual goal was not to change the homeless problem. It’s to change the minds of people with homes. It’s to get those people – the commuters – to look at a homeless person and to understand that that’s not just a fixture at the side of the road; it’s an individual that has needs, wants and everything else. I wanted to help them make some money. And I think it’s influenced some people to give more money. I’ve gotten positive feedback from people I passed signs to. I know only a few of them. They still hold the signs that I gave out. I usually give them my phone number and email address in case of emergencies, if they need any help.
Photo taken by Anthony Bustos and uploaded to Twitter.

Most of the time I approach them and I specifically don’t offer them money, because I don’t want them to feel that I’m paying them to hold the sign. I give homeless people money but not when I pass out the signs. I get mixed reactions. I’d say about a third of them don’t take the sign. Sometimes people are very intoxicated, if they’re too drunk I don’t give them signs – I want them to understand what’s going on. There are those that take pride in the signs they’ve made, they feel it allows them to express themselves. One man told me to f-ck off when I gave him the sign. But as far as positive reactions, there’s a homeless man that’s two blocks from me. He loves the sign I gave him – ‘Hogwarts or bust’ – he says he’s getting more money and tourists even ask to take pictures with him.

Bustos has come under criticism from those who accuse him of poking fun at the dark underbelly of modern city society. He argues that his intention was never to fix the issue but to draw attention to it.

A lot of people are against what I’m doing. People think I’m making light of the problem of homelessness. They’ve said that it’s like putting lipstick on a pig, and I understand where they’re coming from. Homelessness is a big, nasty issue in San Francisco, one that I’m not equipped to solve. But what I can do is help individual people. And at the end of the day, we all need to have a sense of humor.

Do you think this makes light of the problem of homelessness or could it help draw attention to the issue? Don't hesitate to get in touch with us by leaving a comment below.

Photos taken by Anthony Bustos and uploaded to Twitter.

This article was written by FRANCE 24 journalist Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar).