Homeless Fonts help Barcelona's rough sleepers write a new future

"Writing a cardboard sign is really shitty. You're hardly going to convey love. You can’t convey anything … nice, can you?" says Guillermo about the signs he used to beg with on the bustling streets of Barcelona.

Graphologists say that a person’s handwriting, from the size and style of the letters to how close words are spaced together, can reveal intricate details about their personality.

With this in mind, the cardboard signs written by homeless people sleeping rough are more than a plea for help etched in ink; they are a visual reminder that, despite being homeless, those holding them are still individuals, still people.

But more often than not, the signs and their makers go unnoticed or ignored by passers-by.

As Guillermo, who hails from Argentina and was once one of Barcelona’s estimated 3000 homeless, puts it: “What you’re conveying through the cardboard sign, through your writing, is something that’s really screwing you.”

But that changed when Guillermo and five others living on the streets of Barcelona took part in Homeless Fonts. The unique project saw their handwriting scanned, analysed and converted into downloadable typefaces which brands, companies and individuals can purchase to use in marketing, editorial and social media campaigns.

"I never thought my typeface could be worth anything. I was gobsmacked when I first saw it in a little shop in Barcelona."
London-born Lorraine Halgabary takes part in Homeless Fonts project. Credit: Arrels Foundation

The initiative was founded in the summer of 2014 by the Arrels Foundation, which supports 1,600 homeless people across the city, and advertising agency The Cyranos McCann.

All profits go towards helping the foundation provide Barcelona's homeless with free accommodation, food, social activities, employment, health care and hygiene facilities.

"The main goal is to highlight homelessness by allowing a little bit of this big problem to be seen everywhere, from a poster to a web page," said Arrels’ director Ferran Busquets.

"It also transforms people living on the streets into artists and shows that they have great value to contribute to society. It shows those living on the streets in a different way."

So far, the project has worked with twelve people to produce nine unique fonts licenced online through Homelessfonts.org, with a further three currently in production.

London-born Lorraine Halgabary was sceptical when she first signed up for the project and admits she was speechless when she first saw her font on a bottle of oil marketed by Spanish food producer, Valonga.

Guillermo. Credit: Arrels Foundation

"It was really weird. I was gobsmacked when I first saw it in a little shop in Barcelona. It was an experience to see my writing up there," she says. “I never thought my typeface could be worth anything. Thanks to this, I've discovered that my writing is nice enough for a brand like Valonga to take an interest and use it on their products.”

Lorraine became homeless in 2009 after what was intended to be a relaxing holiday in the Catalan capital turned into a nightmare when her passport was stolen and “used for something illegal”.

Lorraine became part of the city's homeless community and spent nine months living on the streets and in squats, before a friend introduced her to Arrels to make use of its free shower facilities.

Thanks to Arrels, Lorraine is now in shared accommodation and has decided to remain in Barcelona to work for the foundation four days a week in its support services program.

"[Arrels] helped me so much, so it’s a way to pay them back," says the 61 year old. “My letters are being used all over the place … in an Australian magazine and my friends in London have been using them too. People sometimes recognise me in the street because of all the TV and magazine interviews I’ve done. It’s like I’m the celebrity of Arrels!”

So far, the fonts have been licenced by companies and individuals all over the world. The first editorial use of a Homeless Font was in The Big Issue, Australia. The street paper selected a typeface created by project participant Luis for its August 2014 edition, where it was used in headlines on both the cover and a feature article about the forestry industry.

"We loved that the project was exploring typography through a social framework, and was capturing the unique energy the individual participants brought to the project – harnessing the potential of homeless and disadvantaged people to create and contribute to the magazine," says editor in chief, Lorraine Pink.

The font's creator Luis is originally from southern Spain. He moved to Barcelona several years ago, after separating from his wife, and became homeless after struggling to find work. He found accommodation and a fresh start thanks for Arrels, and is "very proud and amazed for the global reach of the Homeless Fonts project."

While the financial gains from the project remain relatively small, Ferran says the effect the project has had on raising the non-profit’s profile, and the spirits of those involved, has been immeasurable.

"It transforms people living on the streets into artists and shows that they have great value to contribute to society. It shows those living on the streets in a different way."
Homeless Fonts workshop Credit: Arrels Foundation

"Those who collaborated on Homeless Fonts are proud and satisfied that the project is helping everyone here," he says. “The people who we look after help run Arrels. Lately they have been participating more within the community and one participant is now part of our management team for the community. This desire to collaborate came from the people themselves. They wanted to feel useful.

"In this sense, Homeless Fonts is one more way of encouraging participation and confidence. The special touch is that the result is used in real products and that is very exciting."

All the project's participants are now off the streets for good and living in flats provided by the foundation.

“The worst thing about being on the street is knowing that I’m sort of … removed from society. Not having a private life, a normal life,” adds Guillermo.

“I want to give thanks to how [Arrels] have acted with me and hope whoever uses my writing does so in a positive way. I have always supported this project. If that writing serves to help others, I’m grateful, more than anything.”

Find out more at www.homelessfonts.org

This article was written for INSP (International Network of Street Papers) and has been published in street papers around the world, including Shedia (Greece), Bodo (Germany), Denver Voice (USA) and The Big Issue Japan.