Chilly Tent City weekend draws over 1, 100

Advocates, homeless camp out on Toledo’s Civic Center Mall

10/27/2013
BY MARLENE HARRIS-TAYLOR
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ray Mays of Toledo, left, speaks with Jennifer Pritchard and her fiancee John Proeschel as the pair wait for clothing at Tent City on Toledo’s Civic Center Mall. Mr. Mays is the mayor of Tent City.
Ray Mays of Toledo, left, speaks with Jennifer Pritchard and her fiancee John Proeschel as the pair wait for clothing at Tent City on Toledo’s Civic Center Mall. Mr. Mays is the mayor of Tent City.

They endured temperatures that dipped to 30 degrees overnight, but hundreds of housed and unhoused people came together and camped Friday at the annual Tent City event at Civic Center Mall downtown.

“That [sleeping in tents] was cold,” said Ken Leslie, founder of Tent City and 1Matters.

By Saturday afternoon it was still cold as brutal winds swept across the courtyard that could only be escaped by ducking into one of the many tents assembled to provide services for the homeless and low-income participants on hand.

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The cold and windy weather, however, didn’t keep people away as more than 600 volunteers and more than 500 homeless residents attended the event that is a collaborative effort of both government and nonprofit organizations.

Despite the weather, “It is still full, it’s still packed, and people are still coming,” said Ray Mays, who was chosen honorary mayor of Tent City.

Mr. Mays’ voice brimmed with excitement as he surveyed the crowd.

He has obtained the happy ending that many of the attendees are seeking.

Once homeless and alone, the 47-year-old truck driver is now fully employed with three jobs and recently married to a woman he met at a Cherry Street Mission banquet.

When he moved to Toledo about two years ago, Mr. Mays had 23 years of truck driving experience and a commercial driver’s license.

“I ran into some trouble, then I lost my ID and I ran out of money,” Mr. Mays said.

He didn’t have a birth certificate to obtain another ID, so he couldn’t get a job and ended up on the streets. That’s when he turned to the Cherry Street Mission for help.

Yealaysia Williams, 18 months old, waits outside the clothing tent with her mother, Deborah Williams of Toledo, at Tent City  on the Civic Center Mall. A bullet fragment is lodged in the child's back and her mother says she wants to move to a low-income apartment in a safer area.
Yealaysia Williams, 18 months old, waits outside the clothing tent with her mother, Deborah Williams of Toledo, at Tent City on the Civic Center Mall. A bullet fragment is lodged in the child's back and her mother says she wants to move to a low-income apartment in a safer area.

After living at the mission for about 10 months, an unexpected opportunity came his way. Mr. Mays was asked to drive a group of 18 volunteers from Toledo-area churches to the East Coast to help with relief efforts after Superstorm Sandy.

One of the pastors in the group posted pictures on his Facebook page of the work Mr. Mays did to help the storm victims and when he returned to Toledo job offers starting pouring in.

“It was overwhelming. God has really been blessing me,” Mr. Mays said.

Mr. Mays has experienced how life can take sudden twists and turns, and he knows how important it is for people to have key documents such as birth certificates.

Deborah Williams, a 23-year-old single mother from Toledo, came to Tent City in hopes that she could obtain a birth certificate for her 18-month-old daughter, Yealaysia.

Ms. Williams is technically not homeless, but she was uprooted from her home in May near the Greenbelt Place Apartments on Walnut Street in North Toledo after a bullet fragment from a shooting lodged in her daughter’s back.

“I still stay there but I feel like I’m homeless because I don’t want to be there. I got to get out of there. It’s too dangerous for me to live over there,” Ms. Williams said.

She said she has found another low-income apartment in Toledo where she would like to move but she needs her daughter’s birth certificate to complete the application.

Her daughter is doing fine, even though the bullet fragment is still inside her. Doctors fear they would do more harm by trying to remove it, Ms. Williams said.

Each year Tent City provides a wide range of free services for low-income and homeless people including free birth certificates. Other services offered include medical checkups, HIV tests, flu shots, and dental care.

Tent City isn’t the novelty it used to be when it was founded in 1990 but it continues to attract sponsors who add to the “one-stop shopping” experience at the event.

This year, thanks to a grant from the Komen Foundation, the services offered to women were expanded to include free mammograms, Mr. Leslie said.

The grant included funding for 24 free mammograms.

The women also were offered free cell phones so that they could be called with the tests results. Mercy Health Partners also offered to help any of the women who have need of further medical care as a result of the mammogram tests by providing them with free treatment.

Tent City was founded as the Homeless Awareness Project, the forerunner to 1Matters. The Toledo event went on a six-year hiatus a decade after it began. It has flourished since it resumed in 2006.

Tent City founder Ken Leslie, a longtime advocate for the unhoused, called the weekend-long event an amazing machine of compassion.

“What is so cool about Tent City is that the magic starts here and then blossoms into all these other things,” said Mr. Leslie.

He cited programs that function year-round such as a successful program to get homeless veterans off the streets and into housing as an example of how Tent City has a reach beyond the weekend event.

He is also proud of the Community Asset and Resource Engagement or CARE team project that takes a mobile food truck into low-income neighborhoods in Toledo and provides fresh food and social services to families.

Tent City ends today after a pancake breakfast at the mall.