Blanket the Homeless Blog

Blanket The Homeless Teams Up with San Francisco Zen Center

San Francisco Zen Center, in coordination with the San Francisco Interfaith Council, participates in the Winter Shelter Program, providing shelter and meals to homeless individuals during the winter months. This year, the Zen Center connected with Blanket The Homeless...

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Interview with Ken Newman on how “Blanket The Homeless” was started

CL: What are the origins of Blanket the Homeless?

KN: About 5 years ago, my buddy Mario Ornelas, a drummer, and I started a band called Berkeley Bronx. I asked him how he felt about doing all of our shows for charity and specifically homeless charities. Mario thought it was a great idea. We first reached out to Compass Family Services and did a bunch of shows for them. And then about three years ago, I found out that the comedian Margaret Cho was doing street performances to raise money for the homeless. Her program was called, “Be Robin” and it was her way to honor her friend Robin Williams who had just passed.  What she was doing was brilliant. She had a sign that said, “If You Have, Give; If You Need, Take.” People would come by, hear Margaret and her friend Gerri Lawlor do music and comedy, and put money in her guitar case. Margaret would then offer the money to anyone who needed it.

Money In … Money Out … No middleman ….

I tracked her down on Facebook and said “Hey I really love what you’re doing. I’ve been involved in homeless outreach for the last two years and would like to support you in whatever way I can.”

She said, “Great why don’t you come tomorrow to Larkin Street Youth Services. We’ll be on the street in front of the place. Bring your stuff.”

So I show up in the Tenderloin with my little battery operated amp and my guitar. Next thing I know I’m singing on the street with Margaret accompanying me on “Wonderwall.”  Bob Mould, one of my punk rock idols, shows up and plays a few tunes. There’s a bunch of other great musicians there. The Chronicle is shooting pictures. There’s a woman giving haircuts to the homeless. Someone shows up with a ton of spaghetti. Another shows up with port-a-potty on a truck.  A comedian and documentary filmmaker, Kurt Weitzmann starts shooting footage, which later became an award-winning film, BE ROBIN …

Needless to say, we all felt that something REALLY important was happening here.

Gareth Gooch Photography

Over the next six months or so, I continued to be involved with Margaret and  Be Robin doing shows at The Condor Club, Hotel Utah, The Oasis, The Edge, and other venues. I was also continuing with my solo and band efforts on behalf of Compass Family Services and Larkin Street Youth Services.

Gareth Gooch Photography

Then about a year and a half ago, my friend Bronica Blue mentioned that a friend of hers in Boston had started giving out emergency blankets during the winter to people living on the streets. An act that she knew could quite literally could save a life. I saw something there and decided to spend $500 and buy as many emergency blankets as I could

Around that time, I happened to run into a young girl, Crystal Lee,  playing ukulele and singing down on Market Street. She was a musician and songwriter who had been homeless and had used her music to get off the streets. And now, she was doing work to help her homeless friends.  I told her I had just bought a ton of emergency blankets and was planning to distribute them and if there were any other items she could recommend. She said people on the streets need socks, antiseptic creams, hand warmers, tissues and protein bars. So we decided to widen our scope and add those items to our “Care Packages.” We decided to call our mission “Blanket the Homeless.” The plan was to continue producing homeless benefits at the Condor, the Lost Church, The Boom Boom Room,  and any venue that would have us and use whatever money we raised from ticket sales, tips, and a percentage of the bar to buy more of the items we needed. (And a bunch of Gallon ZipLock Bags to put them in.)

Blanket the Homeless is a grass roots sort of movement. We’re definitely flying by the seat of our pants here. We don’t have a formal street team. We create ad hoc street teams by bringing the packages to our shows and encouraging people to take them.

It works like this: People make a donation at our show and take as many ‘care packages’ as they want. We ask them to share the packages with anyone they see who looks like they can use it.  And perhaps tell them a little about what’s in the package and why they’re doing this.

In this way, I think Blanket the Homeless has created not only the ability to reach people and give them something that could conceivably save their lives; it also creates an opportunity for people who might otherwise be afraid to engage with the homeless to actually connect with them.

CL: It sounds like this program is really beginning to pick up steam. Aside from your band, Berkeley Bronx, who else is involved?

KN: Well, for starters, Berkeley Bronx has grown to a power trio. I have Andrea Hensler playing Bass and singing. She also plays keyboards, guitar, saxophone and I’m not even sure what else.  We are SO lucky to have her.

And there is a wonderful world of rock and roll musicians out there who’ve donated so much of their time and talent  to this cause:

Matt Jaffe, Scott Mickelson, Jeff Desira,  Eli and the Approach, Crystal Lee Poteet, Dave Gabine, Javier Guerrero, The Welcome Matt, Mya Byrne, Rad Dad, and others…

photo by Nathan Tornatore

CL: Do you see any long term results coming from your involvement with the homeless?

KN: You know it’s hard to say. In conversations that I’ve had with people living on the streets they often talk about that feeling of becoming more and more invisible. One guy said to me, “I watch people walk by all day long and not even look in my direction … ignore me even if I just say, “Good Morning.” I actually feel like I’m disappearing.”

I understand people’s trepidation to engage with people on the streets. Most people don’t know what to say. Some people feel threatened. Or they’re struggling themselves and don’t have any money to spare.

Being able to offer one of our packages to someone can create an easy way to engage.

In fact, I had a great experience at a fundraiser we did at The Lost Church. A guy took five packages at the show and took off down the street on a very rainy night. He came rushing back in after about five minutes.  He was in tears saying he gave them out within two blocks of the Last Church and one guy said “Thank you so much I can’t, oh my God, I can’t believe this. Can I hug you?” The two of them stood on the street corner crying in the rain.

So yes,  maybe there CAN be a long term result here ….

CL: Some people would say that what you are doing is little more than a ‘band-aid’ solution to a much larger problem. How would you respond to that?

KN:  Well, let’s think about that. A Band Aid is designed to do what? Stop the bleeding.  I think that what we’re doing here is a form of triage. You know, if someone goes into an emergency room and they’ve cut off their hand, the doctor on call is not going to order an MRI or a Psych Evaluation.  He’s going to STOP THE FREAKING BLEEDING. And that is all we are trying to do. To offer a modicum of comfort and maybe dignity to people desperately trying to survive on the streets …

CL: Finally you mentioned that you are adding an informative brochure to your packages that will highlight local homeless services: medical services, free food and shelters.

KN: Yes, We HAVE added this to our most recent batch of packages. It’s our Blanket The Homeless Resource Guide. It was done by one of our angels, Carla Laser. She researched it, did the layout, the graphics, the logo, arranged the printing.  It’s an amazing resource. In fact, it’s on this website on the Resources Page.

BLANKET THE HOMELESS • 377 Laidley Street, Unit A, San Francisco, CA 94131 • 415.377.4251


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