Andres Serrano, the edgy artist of "Piss Christ" fame, has a new take on poverty in New York. Since October, he's bought over 200 signs from homeless New Yorkers, usually for $20 each, as part of a photography project he calls "Sign of the Times." In an op-ed published on Creative Time Reports, Serrano stated that he sees his photos as "a testimony to the homeless men and women who roam the streets in search of food and shelter."
In a handful of sharpie-scrawled words, these scraps of cardboard tell tales of poverty, hunger, violence, disease, isolation, and a dozen other hardships that define the homeless experience not just in NYC, but all across America.
1. There's a surplus of food, but not enough to go around.
About 50 million people in the U.S., or one in every six Americans, struggle with hunger on a daily basis. In New York City, an average of 1.5 million New York City residents, 1 in 4 of whom are children, live in households facing food insecurity.
2. But hunger isn't the only thing that plagues the poor.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that 3.4% of homeless people were HIV-positive in 2006, compared to 0.4% of adults and adolescents in the general population.
3. Some have served the country, but the country doesn't always serve them.
On any given night, between 130,000 and 200,000 veterans are homeless. Approximately 40 percent of homeless men are veterans. More than two-thirds of them served the U.S. for over three years and almost 90 percent received honorable discharge.
4. For others, it's tough to leave the street when it's all they know.
5. And as if taking care of one life wasn't hard enough...
Pregnancy rates among women in the U.S. who are homeless are much higher than rates among women who are housed. Up to 22 percent of young homeless females are pregnant, whereas pregnancy rates in the general population (aged 18–19) are just above 12 percent.
6. It's often a matter of life and death.
About 25 percent of Americans living in households with an annual income of less than $25,000 have no health insurance whatsoever.
7. Sometimes, getting out can be a turn for the worse.
One in five Americans who leave prison become homeless soon or immediately thereafter. Housing problems are extremely common among people leaving the criminal justice system, who often have difficulty finding employment because of their criminal records.
8. Because everyone has a back story, and it's not always pretty.
About one in every four American women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. In 2008, 28% of families were homeless because of domestic violence.
9. And for a few, commitment comes with a high price.
Many artists nationwide struggle to pay the rent and make ends meet. Studies show that poverty is particularly problematic for artists in New York City, where the average rate of rent for an apartment is $3,000 per month.
10. In this country, there's a big difference between the "haves" and the "have nots".
In 2013, the price of a brand new Gulfstream G650 private jet was $64.5 million. In the same year, the federal poverty line was defined as an income of $23,550 for a family of four. Approximately 15 percent of all Americans live at or below that line.
11. Which often makes it hard to keep up hope.
In 2010, the Obama administration began a comprehensive plan to reduce homelessness nationwide. The numbers show that effort may be working: since 2012, the number of homeless people in America has decreased by 4 percent. Nevertheless, in New York City and Los Angeles, homelessness has increased by 13 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
12. Just know that little things can make a big difference.
The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) recommends that, if aren't able to volunteer or give to charity, you consider giving directly to homeless panhandlers.
Many people fear that their money will be spent on alcohol or other drugs — which may occasionally be true. However, the NCH says, homeless people often rely on direct donations to get a meal, afford housing, buy clothes, purchase an ID to stay in a shelter, pay for transportation to a job, childcare, health care, support a family member, etc.
Even if you don't choose to spare some change this holiday season, the worst thing you can do is to look away from homeless people as if they don't exist. In the words of the NCH, "Making eye contact, saying a few words, or smiling can reaffirm the humanity of a person at a time when homelessness seems to have stripped it away."
All photos in this article are courtesy of Andres Serrano.
Want to see more than just cardboard signs? Read this article about Chris Arnade, the ex-Wall Street banker whose "Faces of Addiction" photography project candidly portrays the lives of homeless New Yorkers.