Tent City offers many services to Toledo’s unhousedWritten by Brigitta Burks | News Editor | BBurks@toledofreepress.com
Ken Leslie started Tent City, an annual event for the unhoused, after reading a startling statistic in 1990: 60 percent of the homeless were families with children.
“I thought it was unconscionable that kids were on the street,” said Leslie, founder of homeless advocacy group 1Matters and its veterans counterpart, Veterans Matter. Leslie also used to be among the unhoused.
The all-volunteer event, which returned in 2006 after a six-year hiatus, gives the unhoused opportunities to partake in several different activities and services. Haircuts and doctor and dentist appointments are just some of the services offered in addition to food, clothing and birth certificates/legal documents being provided. The unhoused, along with volunteers and anyone who wishes to attend, will camp out at the Civic Center Mall, next to the Toledo Police Department on North Erie Street, from Oct. 26-28. Findlay is having a similar event the same weekend.
“Tent City is about bringing the community’s compassion together and delivering it in one weekend to people in need. It is incredible the amount of results that we get when we bring people together,” Leslie said. For $7,000, Tent City was able to offer $140,000 worth of services to the unhoused last year because of community collaboration.
Volunteers are what drive Tent City, Leslie said.
“The reason all this comes together is the insane, wonderful, hard-working, dedicated compassionate volunteers,” he said. There are slots for 462 volunteers this year.
Michele Ross will be one of the volunteers at Tent City and was appointed honorary “mayor” of Tent City in 2008.
But before that, in 2007, she was a homeless crack addict who wanted to score loot at the event. Today, she credits Tent City with helping get her life on track.
“I went down looking for free stuff and I met some fabulous people,” she said. Now, Ross is a proud grandma and a cook at Bowling Green State University — and a renter of a “beautiful one-bedroom apartment.”
Ross said it was the casual questions the volunteers asked her in 2007 that inspired her to get clean.
“They wanted to know where I was from. When you answer that question you start thinking about your family,” Ross said. “Someone asked me if I had any children.
“Those are kind of questions people don’t ask each other when you’re living on the streets [because] you go there to die because you ruined everything. You ruined your relationship with your family; you ruined your relationship with jobs.”
One volunteer asked Ross what her hobby was. Ross told her that she liked to crochet. The volunteer brought her yarn and hooks the next time she saw her.
“I met people and those relationships developed into friendships,” Ross said. “The first thing that’s offered is the unconditional friendship by the people that volunteer there.”
A volunteer will walk each homeless person through Tent City to make sure he or she gets access to whatever’s needed, said Shawn Dowling, local coordinator for the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program at the Ann Arbor VA Health System.
But before the “Project Connect” part of Tent City comes a walk from Promenade Park to the Civic Center Mall. Registration for the walk begins at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 26 and the opening ceremony is 6:15 p.m. A sock drive will also occur during the walk.
Walk participants who pay the $25 registration fee will receive a T-shirt and an entry into the door prize raffle. The top 10 fundraisers also get one entry into the grand prize raffle. Raffle prizes include show tickets and the chance to meet musical artists like Justin Bieber, Carrie Underwood, The Who and ZZ Top.
ZZ Top recently became spokespeople for a Veterans Matter campaign and John Mellencamp has worked with Leslie in the past.
“We’re being recognized by people like John Mellencamp, ZZ Top and others in the music industry who say what [1Matters is] doing in Toledo is really cool,” Leslie said.
After the walk, dinner will be served at Tent City. Musical director Pat Lewandowski will ensure that tunes play into the night, Leslie said.
Neighborhood Health Association, which aims to put health services in reach of all community members, will provide some of the medical care on site, said CEO Doni Miller.
“There are so many people that are giving that care to the folks that day because they think it’s the right thing to do,” said Miller, who praised Leslie for organizing Tent City.
“Ken Leslie has embraced this whole idea of addressing those people who are unhoused, rom a tiny little seed, and he has made it grow into this mammoth tree,” she said.
There will also be social workers onsite who can help the unhoused get into programs they may need.
“We connect with people there and grab them while we have them,” Miller said.
Tent City provides a way for agencies to get in touch with the unhoused, often veterans, who may not be going to shelters that normally serve as access points for services, Dowling said.
“There are some people who aren’t able to access homeless shelters for a variety of reasons,” she said. These reasons could be PTSD or not being comfortable sleeping in a building.
This is why Tent City is a great way to connect homeless veterans with services, both Dowling and Miller said.
“What happens at Tent City is the veterans will come in and get some good food and connect with some positive people who aren’t going to judge them,” Dowling said.
Getting the unhoused legal documents like birth certificates is also crucial because these items are required for housing programs, she said.
The City of Toledo Department of Neighborhoods and Lucas County Health Department are covering the cost of 50 birth certificates, but more funds are needed.
Tent City also offers something to citizens who have a cozy bed at night — it gives them a chance to experience life as an unhoused person and sleep outside.
“I just know that if people are really curious about what it’s like to be homeless, coming down there is an experience they will never forget,” Ross said.
Leslie said he was recently reminded of his goal of helping the young and unhoused at Tent City.
After speaking at a high school, “This beautiful 16-year-old girl came up to me in tears and said, ‘Thank you for telling my story, I’m homeless.’ Her dad is a drug addict and drug dealer. She grew up never knowing if today was going be the day they got evicted or the utilities got turned off.”
The girl, who was kicked out by her father after he got a girlfriend, was inspired to speak at another high school.
“After she gave the talk to these kids, one of them came up afterward and said, ‘Thank you for telling your story. I’m homeless, too,” Leslie said. The second young woman is a longtime Tent City volunteer who Leslie did not know was homeless.
“People say all the homeless are drunks on the street. It’s bullshit. Look at those two girls who are in varsity sports in their schools, who are leaders in their schools and you tell me that the homeless want to be there, that they’re all bums, that they’re all lazy,” he said.
For more information, to volunteer or donate, visit http://www.1matters.org. To donate new or gently used winter clothing to Tent City’s clothing tent, drop off items at Cherry Street’s LifeBridge Center, 3342 Monroe St.