Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Op-Ed Columns

Homeless board needs new focus

MY friend Jimmy was living in the river when I met him. You could tell because he smelled like the river. He told me he was alcoholic and schizophrenic.

We gave him a change of clothes. He started to walk away, then stopped, turned around, and said: "I'm going to pass this on."

Here was a man who had nothing, but given just a nugget of love, he immediately wanted to share it.

Toledo is like that. After 20 years of service in this community, I know that we live in a remarkably and sometimes overwhelmingly generous place.

Citizens and political leaders of our community want to give to people like Jimmy, who are most in need. That's why it's so important that the institutions we count on to connect people in need with essential services make the most of Toledoans' generosity, rather than get in the way.

The controversy involving me and some of my colleagues on the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board is not about personalities, a hiring process, or someone's ability to do a job.

At issue are federal regulations that forbid anyone from allocating funds to an agency, then taking a job at that agency. At stake are millions of dollars that come to our community each year to help citizens who have lost domestic autonomy.

This conflict exposes the dramatic shift in the direction taken by the board's leadership over the past two years, away from the openness and accountability required of an agency that manages public funds.

Like every other community, Toledo has ever-shrinking resources. To increase the resources available to our cash-strapped city, we must respond with increased efficiency and accountability.

To "end homelessness," as the general wish is expressed, we first would have to eliminate mental illness, chemical addiction, job layoffs, home-destroying fires, domestic violence, and poverty. That's impossible.

But it is possible to create a system that would end homelessness for every individual and family that becomes unhoused in our community because of any of these causes.

We know that mental illness and chemical addiction are primary causes of homelessness for many of the more than 3,000 people in our community who lose domestic autonomy each year. So why are we decreasing rather than increasing spending for mental-health funding and recovery beds?

Political leadership must play a big part. The controversy at the homelessness board provides an opportunity for Toledo's new mayor, Mike Bell, and other community leaders to insist on an efficient, accountable system that quickly returns people to domestic autonomy.

The board is composed of five members appointed by Toledo's mayor, five members appointed by the Lucas County Board of Commissioners, two delegates from the Toledo Area Alliance to End Homelessness, and 10 community representatives.

The board now has 11 openings. We must ask our leaders to fill these vacancies with strong, passionate people who feel called to serve and who care about openness and inclusion rather than exclusion.

They must have the vision and power to dream. They also must be able to address complex problems with simple yet highly productive solutions, such as:

w Creating jobs and low-cost housing by using vacant properties to hire and train unhoused people to build or rehabilitate family and transitional homes for other unhoused people.

w Encouraging and supporting innovation by service providers to build a system aimed at quickly responding to loss of domestic autonomy.

w Providing grant training to all service providers to get our fair share of government grants that would fund such innovation.

None of this can happen unless we have an open, transparent process we can trust. The community and media should be invited to watch and participate in that process, which must make a priority of responding to community needs rather than providing paychecks for a select few in power.

I am not a social-services bureaucrat. I am more like the line judge in a tennis match who knows the rules of the game, watches it attentively, and only calls faults when necessary. In 20 years, I have never seen so many double-faults by so-called leaders.

I am on the homelessness board to represent the interests of the unhoused, the community, and taxpayers. I believe taxpayers want us to create an open system that will quickly house those who lose domestic autonomy, not to focus on the issues that divide us. We all know that "there, but for the grace of God, go I."

By the way, Jimmy now lives in his own apartment.

Ken Leslie, who was formerly homeless, is a founding member of the Toledo-Lucas County Homelessness Board and the advocacy groups 1Matters and Tent City.

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