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Ken Newman understands how difficult it can be to interact with people who are facing homelessness. He admits he gets disheartened seeing someone openly using drugs, or trashing a space. But there are people on the street who are “absolutely filled with grace and benevolence that you never expect,” he says.
Mr. Newman’s own awareness of homelessness grew a few years ago into a charity he calls Blanket the Homeless. After his concerts, his fans can take care packages of items such as emergency blankets and nutrition bars that they then give to those in need. A resource guide in each bag is the result of a partnership with a nonprofit that also targets the vulnerable, St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco.
Mr. Newman tells the story of a fan who skeptically took a few bags after a show but returned while he was packing up his guitars. When the fan handed a package to a homeless person, the recipient kept repeating, “Is this for me?” The fan says, “The next thing, we’re standing on the street, hugging in the rain.”
When Ken Newman plays a concert, his merch table looks quite different from that of other musicians.
Whether he’s playing solo acoustic gigs or amps-cranked-to-the-max shows with his trio, Berkeley Bronx, the San Francisco-based frontman sets out the same unusual set of goods. His display consists of bags stuffed with emergency blankets, socks, gloves, nutrition bars, antiseptic creams, and contraceptives.
The bundles are free. But they’re not intended for the audience members to keep for themselves.
When Mr. Newman isn’t singing tonsil-baring songs by Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, and Radiohead – “I have a wide range,” says the vocalist – he uses his voice to enlist concertgoers to assist his unique charity, Blanket the Homeless. The part-time musician asks his audiences to take his care packages and distribute them to San Francisco’s transient population. It’s an ingenious distribution system. Since 2017, his informal street teams of volunteers have given out over 5,000 bundles. They’re vital supplies delivered with a human touch.
“It’s not just, ‘Here’s a Clif Bar. This will give you something to eat,’” says Mr. Newman during a recent video call. “You have no idea the impact that you can have just by saying ‘hello,’ just by acknowledging the person’s presence on the street.”
Mr. Newman came to his endeavor through evolution. His first spark of awareness came during an earlier career as a freelance photographer. A newspaper assigned him to photograph children at a child care center for homeless people in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood. “Here are these kids acting just like kids and having a really good time and running around and squealing,” says Mr. Newman. “And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, they don’t have homes.’”
Fast-forward to several years ago, when Mr. Newman recalls walking down Chenery Street after playing an exhilarating gig at a bar with the quartet he was in at the time. The tip jar split five ways amounted to $10 each. It wasn’t like Mr. Newman needed the money. By then he’d launched Magnet Productions, a successful live trade show presentations company. Why not donate all gratuities from future shows instead?
“Here’s the thing: When I made the decision to do that, I started to see [homelessness] around me more,” says Mr. Newman, who started playing regular benefit shows for the nonprofit Compass Family Services. “I just woke up to it.”
Eager to do more, Mr. Newman was inspired by the story of a friend who had started distributing blankets to homeless people in Boston. Mr. Newman spent $500 on blankets. Then he talked to a songwriter who’d once lived on the streets and she recommended that he bundle in other essentials, too. Blanket the Homeless was born.
The power of connection
What Mr. Newman didn’t anticipate was the effect of asking his street teams – the fans who typically help by handing out flyers and putting up posters – to interact with people on the street they might otherwise not talk to. He recalls a show at the Lost Church theater in which one attendee had a snarky attitude about the packages but took a few with him. Twenty minutes later, while Mr. Newman was packing up his guitars, the audience member returned. He was soaking wet. The man told him that when he’d handed a package to a homeless person, he stared at the package in disbelief and kept repeating over and over again, “Is this for me?” The homeless man began crying. The concertgoer told Mr. Newman, “The next thing, we’re standing on the street hugging in the rain.”
Mr. Newman’s voice catches as he recounts the anecdote. He wipes his eyes. “His story gets to me because of the look on his face. He looked at me like something fundamental had shifted in him.”
Mr. Newman understands the difficulty for the more well-off to interact with those on the streets. There are days when he gets riled up because homeless people trash a garden at the building that his girlfriend manages. He gets disheartened when he sees someone openly using drugs. He gets angry when they yell inappropriate comments to his girlfriend on the street. So why does he persist with Blanket the Homeless? There are people experiencing homelessness “absolutely filled with grace and benevolence that you never expect,” he says.
Mr. Newman cites comedian Margaret Cho’s street performances on behalf of homeless people as inspiration. Years ago, her “Be Robin” fundraisers – a nod to comic Robin Williams, renowned for helping people experiencing homelessness – featured performers including Mr. Newman. (Ms. Cho has been known to join him for a rendition of “Wonderwall” by Oasis.) The sign on a guitar case, opened to collect donations, read, “If you have, give; if you need, take.”
Ms. Cho says it’s the opposite of a model in which donors just shell out money to forget about the problem. “With something like Blanket the Homeless or Be Robin, there’s a really direct result,” says Ms. Cho. “I think that’s a real charitable donation. Your time and effort is being spent on something that isn’t too much about financial contribution. It’s more of a heart contribution.”
Helping hands of a nonprofit
Mr. Newman’s full-hearted efforts to develop Blanket the Homeless began to run into logistical issues. On the day of a show, he’d unlock his storage unit and fill as many as 100 supply bags. Enter the St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco. The goals of the nonreligious nonprofit, established in 1860 to help the city’s most vulnerable community members, aligned perfectly with that of Blanket the Homeless, says Executive Director Shari Wooldridge. They offered Mr. Newman a helping hand – many hands, really – to put the packages together. They also added weather-proof laminated brochures to the bundle.
“They’re a resource guide,” explains Ms. Wooldridge. “It provides information about where shelters are, where survivors of domestic abuse can go, addresses and phone numbers for legal services, where people give out meals, and where San Francisco restrooms are.”
The partnership has been a mutual blessing because it has introduced the St. Vincent de Paul Society to potential new donors. “Promoting his events through our website gives us an opportunity to be seen by a new group of people,” says Ms. Wooldridge.
Mr. Newman’s latest fundraising venture on behalf of his charity is a vinyl compilation album titled “Blanket the Homeless.” Among the contributions from local artists is a plaintive piano ballad by Mr. Newman.
“I wrote a song called ‘We Should Do It Again,’ which was just culled from stories that I heard and cardboard signs that I read by people living on the streets.” When Mr. Newman looks out his window, he thinks of people who don’t have the luxury of four walls. It’s made him less quick to complain, more grateful for the good in his life.
“The benefits that I’ve gotten from my commitment to homelessness far, far, far outweigh the costs,” says Mr. Newman. “Someone called and told me, ‘I just saw this guy wrapped up in an emergency blanket and looking at one of the blue brochures.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s great!’ That’s what keeps you going.”