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Published: Thursday, 10/6/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

COMMENTARY

We need more compassion, not more government help

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE COLUMNIST

In October of 2008, I witnessed something I never expected to see: A marriage among homeless people.

The bride and groom weren't homeless. But many of the 200 or so people who witnessed the vows exchanged by homeless advocates Ken and Norma Leslie were. Also there were many of the couple's relatives and well-to-do friends -- some of them journalists, such as Channel 11 news anchor Jerry Anderson and the Chicago Tribune's Sam Roe.

The latter two were in the wedding party. I don't remember them or any other journalists covering the event. They just took it all in.

As I looked around at the mixture of haves and have-nots warmed by the joy of matrimony, it dawned on me: This is what's possible. Not the marriage, which -- beautifully unpretentious as it was -- seemed like a subplot. But the sense of brotherhood.

The wedding was part of that year's 1Matters Tent City event, which Ken helped create in 1990. Tent City is an annual event next to Toledo's police headquarters that's akin to fall camping, except it's in the heart of a big city's downtown. Volunteers connect face-to-face with the homeless through music, coffee, and outreach programs from free haircuts to free medical exams.

Fast-forward three years to the present. On Sunday, rock 'n' roll photographer-tour manager Harry Sandler's amazing collection of photographs of music greats -- Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Harry Chapin, Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones, Van Halen, and the Who among them -- goes on display at 20 North Gallery in downtown, on St. Clair Street across from Fifth Third Field.

Mr. Sandler is donating all proceeds to 1Matters. Gallery owner Eric Hillenbrand is donating his commissions.

The art show's opening reception will be on World Homeless Awareness Day. Also planned for Sunday is 1Mile Matters, a mile-long walk in support of homeless services, and an all-day musical extravaganza at the Erie Street Market, the 1Rocks-1Matters Benefit Concert.

Tent City follows Oct. 28 through Oct. 30, with Mr. Sandler's closing reception on the same day that Tent City ends.

I'm all for government support that is reasonable and efficiently managed. But I'm also smart enough to know it's going to take more for Toledo to return to its glory days and stop being one of the nation's poorest cities, with more than one of every four city residents living below the poverty line.

It will take some intangibles, starting with more people looking a distressed person in the eye and seeing him or her as a human being. And not passing judgment if he or she is an alcoholic or a drug addict.

We don't need more government programs. We need more compassion, the stuff you don't find on an accountant's ledger or in a bureaucrat's rule book. Compassion is how we can take back Toledo.

As the late Morrie Schwartz observed in Mitch Albom's book Tuesdays With Morrie: Imagine how much good the human race could do if it ever achieved its capacity to love.

I grew up making little eye contact. People who know me now might be shocked to learn that I once was shy. I since have learned there are stories in peoples' eyes -- and we all had better start paying attention.

As I've told some of my journalism colleagues as I ranted about the pros and cons of Twitter, Facebook, iPad applications, and the like, technology's great only if it's used to supplement, not to replace. If you've never gotten a story studying someone's body language, you're not a journalist.

So, fine. The bridge bringing together some of Toledo's haves and have-nots is a rock 'n' roll photo exhibit, a one-mile walk, live music, and a downtown camp-out.

It's a John Mellencamp or Crystal Bowersox public service announcement on YouTube. It's peanut butter sandwiches handed out near the main library on Saturdays by area churches, a donation of used clothing, or a few minutes at an area soup kitchen.

Toledo has shown it has compassion. It has heart. It just needs to keep showing it.

Tom Henry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: thenry@theblade.com



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