In communities across America, we see people, including families with children, living involuntarily — and too often dying — in cars, encampments, and cardboard boxes on sidewalks. We have not seen that in Toledo, yet.
The supply of emergency shelter beds in our community has met the demand for those beds. But the Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board is pursuing a policy of denying funds to these shelters that could force them to close.
For the last two years, only the compassion, courage, and conscience of Toledo City Council members stood in the way of that policy. The council will need the support of this community if it is to continue to prevail.
More than 2,500 people a year become unhoused in Toledo. For them, the temporary housing provided by emergency shelters while they deal with their crises is often their only alternative to living on the streets.
I have been a volunteer in this cause for 23 years. I provided seed money for several programs, such as Tent City. I also contributed startup funds for the homelessness board — which was intended to bring the community together, but now appears determined to tear it apart.
It typically takes 37 days (and nights) to get rehoused in Toledo. If the shelters close, where will these 2,500 people go in the meantime? Some supposed experts say they can be “diverted” to other places, such as hotels. But even if such housing costs just $40 a night on average, who will pay the $3.7 million hotel bill?
The places where the unhoused go are considered “bad for business.” Recent enforcement action designed to “move them along” has forced unhoused people first uptown and then back downtown — where they are arrested for not leaving.
This year, the City Council reinstated funds to four shelters that the homelessness board had sought to deny. In response, the board cited those shelters in a way that would have prevented them from bringing more than $500,000 in state funding to this community. When advocates challenged that punitive policy, the board rescinded it.
Toledo has a reputation for helping people in crisis. Renowned musicians such as John Mellencamp and Dusty Hill have attracted national attention for their support of our community’s compassionate efforts. Now, though, media coverage is of the battle to eliminate the shelters.
Will we need to see camps for unhoused people and families on the banks of the Maumee River before we rediscover our community conscience and take action not only to preserve the shelters, but also to build more emergency beds?
Thankfully, the City Council has stood up to the homelessness board and kept the shelters funded. But the battle is not won.
The homelessness board cannot solve the problems it is intentionally creating. Business logic and balance are missing from the debate. Lucas County officials should convene a small, independent task force of objective business leaders to look at the issue from all sides and to propose solutions.
What if your father, mother, child, or grandchild were on the streets? Would your conscience allow that?
Ken Leslie is founder of Tent City, 1Matters, and Veterans Matter, and a former member of the Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board.