Interview: Survivor

You might recognize Denver resident Ken McNickle from the current season of Survivor. What you might not know is that McNickle runs Humane Kind Project, a nonprofit that builds community and breaks down barriers between the housed and unhoused people of Denver.

The Humane Kind Project throws “block parties” that take place every Saturday in Civic Center Park. The Denver VOICE caught up with McNickle to find out more about his project and his hopes for Denver.

Interview by Sarah Harvey

Kenneth McNickle (left) at a Humane Kind block party. Credit: Nutmeg Photography by Megan Kibling, photo courtesy of Humane Kind Project.

Denver VOICE: What inspired you to create the Humane Kind Project?

Ken McNickle: When I lived in Hawaii, one of the most beautiful things about the culture was that everyone treats everyone like family. They refer, literally, in speech, to everyone as auntie, uncle, or cousin, whether you’re actually blood related or not. There’s this constant feeling of belonging and family and support. When I moved back to the mainland after almost six years there, I was really amazed at how many people seemed to have no support. I realized that we don’t have that family connection, we don’t have that desire to open ourselves to strangers and it’s a cultural thing, it’s a cultural shift that’s been getting worse and worse. I realized that [people on the streets] more than anything needed support, to be seen, to be acknowledged. Not [to] feel like a piece of trash on the sidewalk, but a human being worthy of conversation, friendship, love, connection, all of that.

Had you worked with people experiencing homelessness before?

No. I’ve spent a good deal of my adolescence and adult years working with nonprofits of various sorts, but never specifically with the homeless. I see something that is an issue and if I’m inspired or drawn to it, I can’t not help. 

I was actually working at a restaurant in Denver and riding along the Cherry Creek bike path almost every night and was constantly seeing the homeless underneath the bridges. I usually had food in my backpack from the restaurant. Then I would see these people, and they were in worse shape than me so I’d end up giving them my food. Then I started taking every scrap of food I could get from the restaurant every night. I’d end up with an entire backpack or crate on the back of my bike full [of food], and I started handing it out. 

From there a couple guys got pretty familiar with me. One night one of them was like, “Hey man, I love food, but I could really use a jacket, can you help me out?” So I went to Goodwill and got a jacket for him. Then a couple other people started asking me for things. The people at Goodwill noticed I [kept] coming in and one of the managers actually asked me what I was doing. When she went to ring me up, she rang up a number that was much less than what it should have been. She was like, “I appreciate what you’re doing. It’s not much, but I hope it can help out.” That was the beginning of the relationship I developed with Goodwill. 

Since then, it went from dropping off a couple to-go boxes of food and a case full of stocking caps to a weekly event where for three or four hours we give away dozens of jackets and shoes and hats and clothes. We bring music, we bring down games, chessboards, jenga, all kinds of stuff. And we create a hangout. The whole concept behind the block party is feed the belly, feed the soul. We treat them as friends, which I really, truly feel like they are all friends of mine.

Where do you have these block party events?

Civic Center Park. We did them for the first eight or nine months down at the corner of Colfax and Speer, along the river there, but we had to move things over. Civic Center Park is a place in Denver with a high concentration of homeless, so we figured, go where they’re at. We’ve been down at Civic Center Park for about six months.

What days do you have the block parties?

It’s every Saturday morning. The energy and atmosphere is a little bit lighter, you get some guys at the beginning of the day who are a little optimistic and, what’s better than a couple of really good LaMar’s donuts and a cup of Starbucks coffee to start your day? We’re playing Johnny Cash, we’re playing the Lumineers, listening to music and we just connect—every Saturday. 

One of the things that is beneficial about that is that some of the groups come out and do these big, grand events once or twice a year— it’s great— but the whole premise of what we’re doing is connecting the community through compassion, breaking down those social barriers, really integrating ourselves into their community and allowing them into our community. So by showing up every single week, every Saturday morning, we feel like it’s been really impactful. The level of trust and the level of connection and type of friendship we’ve been able to develop have been really profound because they don’t see us once every six months, they see us every week. 

Has your status as a Survivor cast member affected the Humane Kind Project at all?

Absolutely, and in the most beautiful of ways. I’m more than happy with the way I’ve been portrayed on the show and the aspects of myself that I showed while I was out there. 

People, for whatever reason, seem drawn to my character, so when they watch the show, numerous fans come down to our events and our block parties. Then the fans that really loved the show follow us on social media, Google us, they kinda track you down and sniff things out and they want to know more about who you are, not just a character on the show but in real life. And when they Google me or they track me down, Humane Kind is often a big thing that pops up. 

People like the idea of the block parties. They like the idea of how we’re attacking these social issues, not just treating topical things. We’re getting to the root cause of why we have some of these issues, which is the human level, developing connections, supporting, and helping. From all over the U.S. now—from other states, from other cities—people are saying, “We love your block party idea, we want to start our own, can you help us?”

About how many people do you get at the block party events?

The homeless or the volunteers?

Both.

Volunteers, we’re usually seeing anywhere around a dozen. Sometimes it’s seven or eight people sometimes it’s 20 people. My friends bring their kids down, I bring my daughter down. Some people were wary about it at first and then they see how a lot of these men or women have kids or grandkids of their own, how they light up when they get to engage with a five-year-old, a ten-year-old, a 15-year-old, and that’s something that’s really beautiful to watch. The homeless, we usually have anywhere from 75 to 150 people that we feed and communicate with and connect with every week.

If someone wants to volunteer should they just show up?

Absolutely. Just show up, every Saturday morning you know where to find us. Rain or shine, doesn’t matter, we’re there every time. If you want to come connect with us, I also make it very clear that it’s not about you and your friends coming down to take a couple selfies, “Look what we’re doing! We’re down here helping the homeless.” I’ve had fans come down and want to talk and engage with me, and I tell them it’s not the time. The purpose of being down here as volunteers is not to hang out with one another and just be present, it’s to engage and connect. It’s about connecting with these people and really offering [your] ears and hearts and time.

So that engagement and that connection, is that mostly happening in the form of conversations?

Yeah, definitely. The assistance is nice. People come down and they’re like, “Wow, my toes are poking out of my shoes for the last two weeks and I got this new pair of shoes, thank you so much.” But you know, we have our motto: feed the belly, feed the soul. Feeding the belly is a temporary fix. You feed someone’s soul and that lingers much, much longer than a sandwich. If you can do both, if you can feed the belly with a sandwich and feed the soul by truly listening to someone and being present with them and making them feel as though their feelings or thoughts are validated and that they are seen as a human being, that carries with them, that sticks. 

How do both the volunteers and the people you serve react afterwards? 

One of my friends came down when we were first doing this. He grew up in a very conservative family, he came from wealthy schools, wealthy family, wealthy neighborhood, not really familiar with [the homeless], so all he had was a number of assumptions, judgements. Finally he comes down and afterwards I go up to him just to kind of get an idea of how he was feeling, what was going on, and he was in tears. He’s choked up. I’m asking him how he’s doing and he’s like, “I will never see a homeless person the same again.” He said, “I’ve done soup kitchens before, I’ve gone with my church and given food to the homeless, but this method, this way, it’s not me behind a table putting a spoon full of soup in someone’s bowl and they move on, you don’t have a second or two seconds of interaction and they’re gone. I sat and talked to someone for half an hour and they poured their heart out to me.” The homeless, they have no reason to have a filter, they have no motivation to hold back. 

And so that raw, real, authentic energy is moving for the people who are there embracing it, but also the homeless are getting validation through being seen and through people really actually listening for the first time, sometimes in years. So I think it is equally beneficial, if not equally moving for both sides.

Does Humane Kind have any special projects or events coming up?

We’ve got an event coming up toward the end of December, our TLC event. I’ve got a couple friends that are chiropractors, I’m a massage therapist, and a few other friends who are hairstylists. We want to have a day of TLC where someone can get a haircut, get a chair massage, have the chiropractor adjust them. 

We’ve got an event coming up in February, which is our Valentine’s Day event. It’s our carnation day. Last year we had 500 single-stem carnations with our cards attached to them and the homeless men actually went out with those on Valentine’s Day and handed out the flowers for us all throughout downtown Denver. This year we’re hoping to get 2,500-5,000 flowers to really amp it up. 

One of the most beautiful interactions I saw was a gentleman who walked up to a woman to give her a flower, and her first assumption was, okay, here comes a homeless man, he’s got a handful of flowers, it’s Valentine’s Day, he’s probably trying to sell me something. Then he explains what the organization is and why we’re doing what we’re doing. And then the boundaries between them, you could just see them slowly break down and disappear and ten minutes later she’s talking to him. A single flower was the catalyst.

So that breaking down of barriers goes both ways?

Exactly, absolutely. Just like breaking down barriers between my volunteers and the homeless people we’re working with, we’re breaking down barriers on both sides. We’re all humans, we all deserve respect, we all deserve love, and we all deserve to be seen.

What hopes do you have for the Denver community for the holidays and going into the new year?

My hope, and one of our slogans, is “make compassion a habit, not a holiday.” Going out once a year is great, but if you can, make it a habit. A lot of groups have come to us and said, “Hey we’d love to help you on Christmas.” I’m like, “how about you come three weeks ahead of time,” or “how about you come four weeks after Christmas?” A lot of our guys, as I’m out there on Christmas checking in with them and seeing how they’re doing, they’re like man, I’ve got so much stuff I don’t have room for it. Ninety percent of the churches, the families, the Boy Scout groups, they love going out on Christmas. Spread it out. That’s my wish for the community, that they make it a habit, not a holiday. ■

 

Block parties take place in Civic Center Park every Saturday from 8:00 a.m. to noon. For more information about the Humane Kind Project block parties, visit humanekindproject.org.