Ken Leslie asked members of the Rotary Club of Toledo on Monday to shout out stereotypes of homeless people.
Addiction, one said. Hunger, said another. Mental health, loneliness, cold.
Ken Leslie, a former addict who was himself homeless, speaks at the weekly meeting of the Rotary Club of Toledo in the Grand Ballroom of the Park Inn downtown. He leads efforts to find housing, with a concentration on military veterans.
“I know at least one person who is at least one of those,” Mr. Leslie said. But then he asked the crowd, how many knew a co-worker, or friend, or boss who they could associate the same way with those words?
“What is the difference?” he asked.
Mr. Leslie, a local homeless advocate, spoke to the Rotary about the organizations and events he’s started to reduce homelessness in Toledo and other urban centers.
A former alcoholic and addict who was himself homeless, Mr. Leslie has created the annual event Tent City, the organization 1Matters, and leads an effort called Veterans Matter to find housing for homeless military veterans.
He spoke Monday about the celebrities who have helped expand the reach of Veterans Matter, which has been able to find housing for more than 1,000 veterans in a dozen cities. He spoke about the economic autonomy 1Matters is helping to build for the homeless in Toledo, Detroit, and Ann Arbor through street papers such as Toledo Streets.
“These people are working their way out,” he said.
Dan Rogers, president and chief executive of Cherry Street Mission Ministries, praised Tent City, calling it an annual reminder of both the needs in the community and the solutions available. He and Mr. Leslie, he said, both are working to redesign systems to eliminate homelessness and reduce poverty.
“Ken provides us a consciousness that is needed on an almost daily basis,” Mr. Rogers said.
Mr. Leslie, a former professional comedian, spliced jokes between his impassioned messages, and forwent the podium, instead moving between tables and occasionally stopping by a seated Rotarian to sip water from their table.
He spent much of his speech explaining to Rotarians how he became so passionate about homeless advocacy, whether it was stories about changed lives or how minor fixes to systems could get dozens off the streets. Housing for veterans through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was unattainable for many because they couldn’t afford the $600 deposit, keeping them on the streets.
Mr. Leslie said he learned that if vets couldn’t afford the deposit, churches or local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapters were asked to help.
“That broke my heart,” he said, “and made me angry.”
That’s how Veterans Matter started. Within 11 days, he said, he had secured a charitable donation from ProMedica that got a group of local veterans off the streets.
A new member to the Rotary Club — Mr. Leslie said Mr. Rogers had convinced him to join — he also told Rotarians that they had the capacity to help make a difference.
“I’m not special, I’m a goofball,” he said. “But we have this amazing power to save lives.”
Tent City will be Oct. 21-23 at the Civic Center Mall in downtown Toledo.
Singer John Mellencamp — whose solidarity with Toledo’s homeless and Mr. Leslie’s work inspired 1Matters — will return to Tent City this year and serve as the “Honorary Mayor” of this year’s camp-out and service event.