With Memories of a Comic Comrade, Margaret Cho Helps the Homeless

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SAN FRANCISCO — The comedian Margaret Cho has been busking around her hometown, singing, plinking on her guitar and nearly stripping to raise money for the homeless. San Francisco has pop-up restaurants, art galleries and shops, but Ms. Cho’s may be the first pop-up charity.

Through social media, she has notified fans, who brought coats, pants, shirts, shoes, blankets and lots of socks as well as cash, which she gave away at each event. Her ninth and final performance was on Tuesday.

The inspiration, Ms. Cho said, was her friend Robin Williams, who committed suicide in August at age 63. When she could not shake her sadness, another comedian friend said, “Don’t mourn Robin — be Robin.” Mr. Williams, who lived in the Bay Area, raised millions for the homeless. So Ms. Cho began what she calls “my mini-baby-weirdo version” of Mr. Williams’s charity routines.

She also did it because, she said pointedly, this city has become Dickensian, with the rich getting richer as they till the digital fields of Google and Facebook and the poor getting poorer and priced out of their apartments. Ms. Cho knows that she cannot change the economy, but she can lift spirits by doing what she knows best.

“San Francisco used to be a city of street performers,” Ms. Cho said at her final event. “Robin was a street performer — this is part of bringing that back.”

She has performed at Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall, and much of her comedy is so profanely unprintable that any attempt at paraphrasing would not do it justice. Starting in January, Ms. Cho will be a host of a show on the TLC channel called “All About Sex,” a title that conveys some of her brand of humor.

During her monthlong string of pop-ups, she took her act to a youth shelter and to neighborhoods where homeless people congregate. Ms. Cho said she had raised about $2,000 at most of the shows. She finished with an evening performance at SF Eagle, a gay bar with synthetic snowflakes and a mirrored ball twinkling from the ceiling.

Outside, drivers pulled up with armfuls of new sweaters, vests, jackets, pants, dental floss, soap and socks, stacking the donations on tables on the sidewalk. Homeless men and women, often unnoticed during the day, walked or biked to the tables and chose what they liked. Late into the night, the hills of clothing were replenished and the homeless kept coming.

Michael Austin, “eight years on the street,” rode his clunky gray bicycle from under a nearby freeway overpass, where he lives. “This is exciting,” he said, stuffing so much clothing into drooping plastic bags, marked “Personal Belongings Bag,” that when he pedaled away the bike tipped over. After being helped up, he said, “I’m coming back with my friends.”

There are more than a half-million homeless people in the United States, and 6,500 live in San Francisco. Many sleep on the sidewalks and under building overhangs.

The people who came for free clothing were mostly older. The donors were of all ages. “When prompted,” Ms. Cho said, “people are so generous.” And she excels at prompting: As she sang, she beckoned audience members to sail dollars into a bucket she held in her outstretched arm. Few could resist.

At her shows, she charges $5 for a cellphone picture taken with her — and $100 for a nude shot — with the money going to the homeless. Ms. Cho also is raising money at the website GoFundMe. Whenever she has enough cash, Ms. Cho goes to the bank, breaks $100 bills into singles and gives them away. “There is nothing better than making it rain dollar bills on a homeless man," she said. “It’s a beautiful thing, and why not?”

This story was originally published on The New York Times. A version of this article appeared in print on December 25, 2014, on page A17 of the New York edition.

On stage she engaged her fans. “Is Kelly Clarkson going to hug a homeless person?” she joked. “I don’t think so.” Then she sang one of her gritty songs, with lyrics that included: “No more hugs till you give up drugs.”

Ms. Cho knew she was not solving the problem, but she said, “Maybe someone will get to sleep in a hotel room or maybe get a sleeping bag.”

She was trying to break through apathy about the homeless, an attitude that she admits she once shared. But Ms. Cho, 46, said her recent experiences had touched her heart. “I hugged a man who told me, ‘Don’t you know, I haven’t been touched in a year?’ ” she said.

When it rained and Ms. Cho could not perform, she went to a park and distributed waterproof ponchos. She has arranged for hairdressers and manicurists to tend to the homeless. Her constant inspiration, she said, is Mr. Williams, who raised millions through Comic Relief and also quietly looked after Bay Area comedians who struggled financially. On Twitter, Ms. Cho uses the hashtag #BeRobin when discussing charitable efforts.

“You’d go to him if you needed money,” Ms. Cho said. “If there was a foreclosure on your house, you asked Robin for help. He was the security blanket we all had.”

She said she could relate to the people she was helping in other ways. “I have issues with drugs and alcohol,” Ms. Cho said, “I’m not that far away from where they are.” If they spend the money she gives them on drugs and drink, she does not judge them. “Why not give people a party?” Ms. Cho said, “That’s what’s missing from the streets.”

Later in the evening, Mr. Austin, whose haul of clothing had tipped over his bicycle, returned as promised with friends. He found a new Patagonia jacket and tangerine-colored Banana Republic shirt, which will go well with his new black corduroy pants. “This is wonderful, " Mr. Austin said. He has been given free clothes before, he said, “but not of this magnitude or quality.”

“It’s like Christmas,” he said, before pedaling back to his home under the freeway.


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