When Michele Ross attended Tent City last year, she was homeless, sleeping in vacant buildings or the backs of junked cars.
A vicious crack-cocaine habit over the years had caused her to lose her three-bedroom ranch house in Bowling Green and had alienated all of her friends and family.
She attended the annual homeless awareness event with the simple hope of "getting some free stuff."
But beyond getting free food, clothes, or a blanket, it turned her life around. Tent City was her first step toward getting off the streets.
"It really opened my eyes that I didn't have to live that way," she said. "There was places I could go that would help me start over."
This year, she is presiding over the "city," located downtown on the Civic Center Mall on Jackson Street between Erie and Michigan streets, as its "mayor." She is no longer homeless, and lives in Toledo's Vistula neighborhood, working as a house manager for the Furtherance Foundation, which provides transitional housing.
"I am proud of myself," Ms. Ross said. "I've come a long way."
Tent City, which aims to connect the homeless with social and medical services, kicked off Friday night with music and a comedy show. It concludes today with a celebrity pancake breakfast, where the homeless are the celebrities, and are served by others.
Yesterday, they could receive medical checkups, foot care, HIV tests, free flu shots, dental care, identification cards, and a number of other services. There were also tables with information from various shelters, the United Way 2-1-1 hot line, the Veterans Administration Health Center for Homeless Veterans, and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality and Legal Aid of Western Ohio.
Richard Langford, director of the Mildred Bayer Clinic for the Homeless, said the event aims to be a "one-stop shop" of services.
Kerry Heck said he was able to get a hair cut, a book bag, hygiene kit, a coat, socks, and underwear.
"I ate good, slept good, was warm last night, got to listen to some good music," said the 43-year-old homeless man.
Having been without stable shelter for several years, he said, "You don't understand it until you're there. It's like falling into quicksand. You want to get out, but you're stuck."
Tent City founder and longtime homeless advocate Ken Leslie estimated that, as of yesterday afternoon, Tent City had provided services to at least 400 "unhoused" people.
Mr. Leslie prefers to use the term "unhoused," rather than "homeless," because of the negative stigma he said the word carries.
He said stories like Ms. Ross' explain why the event is so important.
"Michele is an inspiration, not only to those still on the streets, but also to our entire community that cares enough to make sure she knows she matters."
Taylor Sawyer, 16, a junior at Central Catholic High School, volunteered yesterday with several fellow students.
"I think people are so separated from the homeless," she said. "It's just good to come down here and see that they're regular people. You don't know what it's like until you're here. And once you're here, it's pretty moving."
In the last five years, an annual average of 2,400 people have been documented as needing homelessness services, according to the Toledo/Lucas County Homelessness Board's plan to prevent and end homelessness in Lucas County, published in July.
The plan cited a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors that said lack of affordable housing, poverty, domestic violence, mental illness, and substance abuse are major factors.
"A universal or absolute description of the "typical" homeless person is not possible," the plan stated, adding that the homeless population consists of single men, single women, families, and youth.
Among the various volunteers and attendees, Ms. Ross was performing her mayoral duties yesterday, greeting people with hugs and smiles.
"I hope even people who aren't homeless go down to Tent City," she said. "There's a lot of people who deserve some help."
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