“We have fresh food here,” Margaret Cho shouts. “Fresh food from a rock star.”
The comedian-musician-activist is standing on the sidewalk outside Larkin Street Youth Services, a shelter for homeless teenagers in San Francisco. Next to her, former Hüsker Dü guitarist Bob Mould is adding bags of mandarins to a growing pile of food on the sidewalk.
The crowd gathering in front is mostly homeless, and that’s the type of crowd Cho wants. She’s reverse busking: In between playing sets with her band, she pulls out dollar bills and puts them in an open guitar case, inviting anyone who needs the money to take it.
“If you have, give. If you need, take,” she tells the crowd. “It’s very simple.”
Cho is spending two months busking on San Francisco street corners to raise money for the city’s huge homeless population. The project is a tribute to Robin Williams, who was also an advocate for the homeless; Williams helped raise more than $70 million through Comic Relief and also added clauses to his acting contracts requiring studios to hire homeless people.
“I’m doing this because I could not get over the death of Robin Williams,” Cho says. “I was so depressed about it. I was talking to Michael Pritchard, who is also an amazing homeless advocate and comedian, and he said, ‘Don’t grieve Robin, be Robin.’ So that’s what we’re doing today.”
The street concerts are DIY, somewhat unorganized affairs. “I’m amazed that we haven’t been shut down by the cops,” Cho tells the crowd of about 75 people, who are spilling into the street. Her duets with guest stars are unrehearsed and sometimes a little off-key. When she gives out bags with clean socks and underwear, she explains that she bought them that morning herself (“I went to Target, and you know because I’m Asian I can find a bargain, so I got everything that was cheap and good,” she deadpans).
The concerts aren’t necessarily raising huge amounts of money, and though Cho has raised over $10,000 for the project online, that won’t go far to tackle the giant challenge of homelessness. Still, the project is an important wakeup call to every jaded tech worker or tourist who avoids looking at the homeless people lining city streets. “As human beings, we have to be here for one another,” Cho says.
Cho clearly cares: She gives bear hugs and kisses to grizzled homeless men who step forward to get food or a dollar, and the crowd beams back at her. One homeless man asks her to marry him. A girl steps forward, in tears, and explains that as a runaway, the shelter saved her life, and she doesn’t know how to thank Cho for what she’s doing. Cho gives her a bear hug, too.
“Please give and please take,” she reminds the crowd. “If you have it, give. Because someday you might need it. This is putting something in your karma bank.”
She’s hoping the project will inspire others to do the same thing. “This is a really important thing,” she says. “I think people are going to be watching this from all around the world and I want them to do this in their cities.”