Beneath the Highway 101 overpass, the scene is bleak. Scattered rows of tents create multiple encampments that continue for several blocks from one neighborhood to the other. On some sidewalks, barricades have been placed against the walls to prevent tents from being laid up against them, but it doesn’t stop people from putting them up closer to the street instead. Some suffer from substance abuse issues or mental illness, though others don't. Regardless of backstory, they all just want somewhere to rest or simply have privacy from the world outside of the zipped-up nylon.
In other parts of San Francisco, the scenes are similar: the city's homeless population counts over 8,000 people in 2019, a nearly 20% increase from two years ago. It’s a miserable sight, one that dehumanizes people who can't afford housing among the city's growing real estate prices.
Local politicians campaign on solutions for the growing homeless population in S.F., but the political will to find a long-term solution to the problem seems flimsy at best. It's in stark contrast to the amount of money flowing into the city's thriving tech companies. The rich are getting richer and the unfathomably poor are growing in numbers. And when political activity is lacking in dire times, it takes independent philanthropists and other local community activists to make a visible difference—anything to help rally a city.
Enter artists: the ones who made San Francisco a haven for free-spirited creatives 50 years ago have also risen to the occasion over the years by any means necessary when faced with how to help the city’s homeless population. Comedian and S.F. resident Robin Williams led the charge over two decades through the Comic Relief series of events, raising over $50 million for homeless services in the process. After his death in 2014, comedian and S.F. native Margaret Cho coped with her grief by staging a series of busking performances throughout the city to raise money for the homeless population, coining the hashtag #BeRobin.
"It was a way for us to be charitable, but also bring a sense of comic relief and performance. Very Robin Williams," Cho tells the Recording Academy. "And calling attention to it, really ignites people’s humanity. It shows that we’re not going to ignore this problem."
A co-founder of the #BeRobin movement, Ken Newman is a San Francisco singer/songwriter and philanthropist, who has kept the efforts of Cho and others going. In 2016, Newman founded Blanket The Homeless, a local charity that has partnered with the St. Vincent DePaul Society Of San Francisco (SVDP-SF) by seeking to improve the day-to-day lives of people living on the streets. In short, they raise money and donate packages that include blankets, socks, toiletries and any other day-to-day supplies that the homeless population might need.
To call further attention to the issue and continue to raise money, Newman's latest effort sees him partnering with producer Scott Mickelson to put out a compilation benefit album entitled Blanket The Homeless. Out Nov. 8, Blanket The Homeless features music from 15 Bay Area artists, each of whom contributed an original song to the album, including two-time GRAMMY winner Fantastic Negrito, Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips, Con Brio, Rainbow Girls, The Brothers Comatose, The Stone Foxes, The Coffis Brothers, Seattle's Tobias The Owl (who lived on the streets as a teenager himself), Goodnight, Texas, King Dream, Whiskerman, John Craigie, The Old Soul Orchestra and tracks by Newman and Mickelson as well. The day before the album's release, many of the artists involved will be playing a benefit show for the project at San Francisco venue The Independent. All proceeds from the show and album sales will go directly to Blanket The Homeless.
"Regardless of the title, I wanted this to be a strong musical statement that stood on it’s own," Mickelson says of the album. While most of the songs do touch on the album's titular theme, Mickelson (who also produced 2017’s After The Fire Vol. 1, a benefit album for victims of Northern California's devastating fires) let the artists know that the songs didn't necessarily need to be directly about being homeless. It just had to be a song they’d be excited to release.
As San Francisco and Bay Area artists themselves continue to grapple with the ever-inflating cost of living, coming into Mickelson's Marin studio ready to record a song that speaks to the larger issue at hand came naturally. On "American Dream," a spiritual folk number by Rainbow Girls, the band reflects on the concept of self-worth when compassion might not be present.
"When you listen to it deeply, it's for obvious reasons that this was our song,” singer Vanessa May says. "It's musing on this ideal that we're all seeking 'Americanness.' That we’re all just trying to find ourselves and exist as healthy selves and family. It talks about how easy it is for your carefully laid plans to be blown by the wind."
When May sings, "Everyone is worth something and it's not their weight in gold," one can't help but think about how invisible San Francisco's homeless population has become to many, let alone to themselves. This speaks to the heart of Blanket The Homeless: displaying compassion for human beings who are suffering every day without a place to call home.
"It takes greater creativity to get people to care again," May says. "It's a different age, where we live in an attention economy and most of our attention is very much occupied."
Meanwhile, "Working Poor," Fantastic Negrito's impeccable Delta blues track (and the only non-original song on Blanket The Homeless, having appeared on his 2016 The Last Days Of Oakland album), tells the tale of people being pushed out of the city and into the heartland; their home has new tenants as they’re forced to the sidelines. Similarly, on "Odd Man Out," Mickelson, who wrote the song during the process of producing the album, sings of the feeling of becoming invisible, like you don't fit in anymore, a relatable perspective whether you have a roof or a rainfly over your head at night.
"I find it difficult to understand that in a city where we lead the world to believe that we're so liberal, diverse and the most conscious of the environment and rights, that we literally and figuratively step over the homeless," Mickelson says. "They’ve become such a fabric of the city that they won't be acknowledged."
True to his word, Mickelson has put together an album of songs that can indeed stand alone. While the message is clear throughout the journey of Blanket The Homeless, the mighty talent on the album is just as evident. The stripped-down bluegrass vibe of "Angeline" by The Brothers Comatose and the sultry groove of "Body Language" by Con Brio are two love songs that shine especially bright. For Con Brio lead singer Ziek McCarter, who lives in San Francisco’s Fillmore district, being a part of Blanket The Homeless is in line with his and the band’s ethos. They recently put out a single, "Living In The City," that sent all proceeds to San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness, and have worked with Bread & Roses, an organization that brings music to institutionalized people.
"We love to give back to the community," McCarter says. "But the condition within the city itself is tough. It's treacherous to walk through the heart of downtown and the Tenderloin. So any way we can contribute and have a positive influence, we’re there. We’re not just in it for the music."
It can be frustrating to think about how a lack of a concrete solutions from city officials is not only not solving San Francisco's homeless problem, it's making it worse. It can be even more frustrating to think that artists, who are becoming increasingly pushed out of the city because of similar economic mechanisms, are the ones left staging effective ways to help. But their efforts are inspiring nonetheless: The money raised will go directly to help S.F.'s homeless population, effectively continuing the great philanthropic work Williams did when he was still alive.
"He was endlessly generous with his time and his comedy," Cho says of Williams. "You know...the original spirit that the city used to stand for something, a great spirit of independence and DIY...it doesn't have to go away."
And for some, like the 15 artists involved in Blanket The Homeless, it hasn't.
"To be an artist and to make a living in San Francisco...it's a grind," McCarter says. "But it’s a great honor to say that we're part of the legacy and history of artists that have thrived in the Bay and stood up for just cause and stood up for the people."
For more info on Blanket The Homeless, and to purchase the album, click here.
Purchase tickets to the November 7th Release show at The Independent here.