Homelessness Crisis Impossible to Ignore for Bay Area Musicians

Two new musical releases, 'Blanket the Homeless' and 'Homeless Oakland Heart,' raise money for organizations that provide unhoused people with supplies and advocate for their rights. (Ian Brennan)

With pothole-filled roads snaking around tent encampments and new, luxury apartment buildings, the blocks surrounding Fantastic Negrito's West Oakland music studio are a microcosm of a growing wealth inequality problem in the Bay Area and nationwide.

"You can see the people that have nothing and are living in the ground and sleeping outside, using the bathroom on the ground, and living the way a human being should not live in a country that calls itself the greatest in the world," says the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter. "And then you can also see the new bars and hip coffee shops, and you can see all the tech people that are here."

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This fractured landscape inspired Fantastic Negrito's song "Working Poor," an amped-up blues-rock meditation on Oakland's class divide, with lyrics that invoke real-life headlines of newcomers calling the cops on black churches for singing too loudly, and the exodus of longtime Oakland residents to Stockton and other more affordable parts of the state.

Originally released on Fantastic Negrito's album The Last Days of Oakland, "Working Poor" is featured on a new compilation from Bay Area producer Scott Mickelson called Blanket the Homeless, due out on Nov. 8. The album and its release show at the Independent on Nov. 7 raise money for an eponymous organization that gives out survival supplies to unsheltered people in the Bay Area.

Entrepreneur Ken Newman founded Blanket the Homeless after getting back into performing live music after years of running a successful events company. Newman didn't need the money he was earning from gigs, so he used it to make care packages for unhoused people that include hygiene products, blankets, socks, energy bars, phone numbers for resources and other supplies.

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At his shows, Newman began handing out care packages to his audiences and asking them to pass them along to the unsheltered people they saw on their way home. As Blanket the Homeless gained traction over the last four years, he's given out over 4,000 care packages to those in need through a partnership with the St. Vincent de Paul Society and help from countless volunteers. Meanwhile, in the years since Newman founded the organization, the United Nations decried the Bay Area's homelessness crisis as a human rights violation. Homeless populations grew in all nine Bay Area counties, and in Alameda County, the number of people living on the street nearly doubled from what it was in 2015.

"The notion of blanketing the homeless and giving out these packages is, 'I can't fix the problem on a large scale, but I can give you something that will make your life more comfortable just for tonight,'" Newman says.

A temporary shelter near a creek at a homeless encampment in East Oakland.
A temporary shelter near a creek at a homeless encampment in East Oakland. (Pendarvis Harshaw )

When Newman came to producer Scott Mickelson's studio to work on his album, the two of them decided to team up to record a benefit compilation to raise money and awareness for Newman's charity. They recruited bands like indie rockers The Stone Foxes, folk and bluegrass groups The Brothers Comatose and Rainbow Girls, and Seattle singer-songwriter Tobias the Owl to contribute tracks. (Fantastic Negrito's "Working Poor" is the only song on the project that was previously released on another album.)

"I think everyone is aware, if you live in the Bay Area, that there's more and more money coming in, and more and more homeless people on the streets," Mickelson says. "It's really hard to make money in music and even to afford to live in San Francisco anymore. I think [that's why] everybody was on board."

The project was highly personal for Tobias the Owl, who spent his teenage years on the streets. His track, "Out of Place," is about the ways being homeless can make one feel alienated, looked down upon and invisible. "Sometimes we can depersonalize the homeless, or de-realize them, or dramatize them, and I think all of those different techniques of looking at the homeless population tend to contribute to their dehumanization in different ways," he says. "It's about that kind of phenomenon and what it feels like to be on the other side of alienation from everyone else."

Now a successful radiologist and a professor at the University of Washington in addition to his music career, Tobias the Owl doesn't often talk about the trauma he experienced when he didn't have housing. He says writing and recording "Out of Place" was an empowering experience that helped him process painful emotions he had shut away in order to cope. "A lot of bad stuff happened to me in that period," he says. "I realized to some degree, I had compartmentalized part of my experience. ... Being a part of this compilation made me realize there were parts of my experiences that I hadn't yet dealt with."

Blanket the Homeless is just one of the latest examples of the Bay Area music scene organizing around the homelessness crisis. Last month, a Janelle Monae and Roots concert at Oakland's Fox Theater raised a million dollars for the foundation Tipping Point, which directed the funds to organizations like the Homeless Prenatal Program and Compass Family Services, among others.

Recently, Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan, who is from the East Bay and currently resides in Italy, recently released an album called Homeless Oakland Heart, which he recorded outdoors while wandering the streets of West Oakland with a microphone. He captured unsheltered people singing, rapping, reciting spoken-word poetry and playing instruments—including a broken, nylon-string guitar one man had in his tent. Brennan paid them stipends for their contributions, and proceeds from the album go to Coalition on Homelessness, a San Francisco organization that advocates for homeless people's rights and publishes the Street Sheet newspaper.


Taking cue from its subject matter, the music on Homeless Oakland Heart feels fraught, with Brennan's distorted edits adding a disorienting, paranoid layer to the confessions of unnamed houseless people. (Because many of the people Brennan recorded exhibited symptoms of mental illnesses, he decided not to list them on the album by name.) Some lament the loss of family members, others express their fears of going back to prison. In one particularly poignant track, one man reflects on how passersby think homeless people want drugs when they actually just want food.

"There's the idea of wanting to be heard as individuals, and the fear, really," says Brennan of the recordings he captured. "They're in jeopardy, they're on the street, they're not being listened to."

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The homelessness crisis is vast and complex, compounded by a lack of mental health resources, criminalization of poverty and shortage of low-income housing. And with Homeless Oakland Heart and Blanket the Homeless, it's clear that many in the local music community aren't content to sit by as it progresses any longer.

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